Lauryn Hill plays it cool
The singer takes her time warming up to the Palladium crowd, but finally lets loose.
“Love your artists,” she continued. “When they falter, hold them accountable. But love them. People are now showing Whitney Houston the love and respect she should have received throughout her career — through all of it.”
Given the constant drubbing she's taken over the years — from the media and from disgruntled fans — it was easy to see that Hill's words were drawn from experience and weren't simply meant to apply to the recently deceased diva.
The commentary was also notable because it marked the first and only time all Tuesday night that Hill engaged the crowd with anything like banter or conversation. The first half of her 90-minute Valentine's evening concert at the Hollywood Palladium was marked by steely professionalism. She and her tightly rehearsed band seemed to press fast-forward as they raced through tunes from her Grammy-winning 1998 solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” at breakneck pace.
Trim and gorgeous, wearing a long, flowing black skirt, heavy jacket (that was never removed) and shiny metallic blouse, she initially gave off the effect of being a butterfly in a glass container, wings fluttering energetically but never breeching the protective barrier she'd erected between herself and her fans. There was a cool detachment that prevented the show from really catching fire, though every song was met with thunderous applause.
Radio hits and fan favorites alike — “Everything Is Everything,” “Final Hour,” “Forgive Them Father,” “The Sweetest Thing,” “When It Hurts So Bad,” an interminable “To Zion” — were given overhauled arrangements that upped their tempos, resulting in speed-reggae grooves and rapid-fire rapping. There was little space for real human emotion to come through the constricted grooves, and the performances seemed largely perfunctory.
The new soundscapes also seemed to mask her voice. Though her voice is huskier, now, it was often lovely — but noticeably less pliant, and clearly less up to the task of sustaining sung notes. This was glaringly evident during the “Miseducation” hit, “Ex-Factor.” In general, many of the verses of her songs were sort of yelled/semi-sung, though occasionally there were brief passages that she belted with some power, providing a bittersweet reminder of her past vocal glory.
Curiously, the breath control that was so shaky when she sang was near impeccable when she rapped, and at those moments that it was clear she remains without peer among female rappers. Her performance of “Lost Ones” saw her go into the zone, nailing every syllable she spat and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
But it was really only during the second half of the show, which she devoted to Fugees classics — “Ready or Not,” “How Many Mics,” “Fu Gee La,” “Killing Me Softly” — that she broke through the glass and connected with the crowd, stalking the stage with mic in hand, doing her patented Lauryn dance moves, and truly vibing. The show was then elevated to a whole other level that was, in moments, transcendent.
“I'm in transition, still,” she said just before closing her set with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” her biggest pop hit to date. “Be patient with me. New is coming.”
And with that, the place was turned into a roiling mosh of bodies jumping up and down, singing along, and remembering the time when Lauryn Hill ruled the world.
-- Ernest Hardy
Image: Lauryn Hill in Los Angeles in July of 2011. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times