Educating ourselves about Lauryn Hill (and her thesis)

Hill has grown with the times and is still as captivating as ever

Originally published in The Tech on March 2, 2012

Lauryn Hill

House of Blues

February 23, 2012

In the non-Prince music section of the Purple One’s fan site Prince.Org last week, a contributor asked quite a pertinent question about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album and its world-renowned female rapper-author:

“Just a curious question, this album was no doubt huge. But I noticed Lauryn Hill doesn’t actually have … many hits. ‘Doo-Wop’ went number 1, ‘Ex Factor’ went 21 and ‘Everything Is Everything’ went to 35. And that is pretty much it. I understand that ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ and ‘Sweetest Thing’ where huge on R&B radio. And even had some MTV Play, also making it on the hot 100. But what is it about Lauryn Hill that makes her so loved and remembered? I myself adore Miseducation and I adore the Fugees album. But as big as Lauryn Hill’s album was and her name in general she just had so few hits, and only one album. So I am curious what was the hype for the album like? And what do you think it is that makes her have this big legacy?” wrote the skeptical poster under the name of “Gunsnhalen.”

A quick reminder: Hill collected five Grammy Awards, including the prized Album of the Year and Best New Artist, for the critically acclaimed 1998 album that launched her solo career following her work with the Fugees. Miseducation has also been a commercial success, with over seven million sales in the U.S. by the end of 2010. Debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 upon its release, Hill’s first solo endeavor has been to this day praised for its rich lyrical themes and variety of genres, earning a place among the greatest albums of the 1990s, and potentially the greatest album of all time.

But as the online commentator insinuates, the 14-track album that jumps from old roots reggae to contemporary R&B, and from soul to hip hop and gospel, and to rhythmically delivered spoken poetry that is purely Laurynhillesque, is clearly about quality, not quantity.

After all, Hill has also released only one album since Miseducation — MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 in 2002, so there has been essentially no new material at her occasional live appearances in recent years. At her series of shows in New York in late December 2010, her solo material and genre-setting songs of the wildly successful Fugees album The Score were the pieces de resistance.

So where is the magic remembrance coming from?

I think I found some answers at Hill’s concert at Boston’s House of Blues last Thursday.

The show was billed as “Ms. Lauryn Hill Performing music from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” but also included songs from other years. The 36-year-old multitalented musician and mother of six showed us why, after so many years, people of all ages and races are still in love with “Killing Me Softly.” Her unique stage presence — as natural as if at rehearsal and with dance moves at once rhythmic and fluid — was on full display last Thursday. Through creative rearrangements of her songs’ original versions, she has managed to create a timeless style that is strictly her own.

Fashionably (but not unprecedentedly) late by one hour and a half on the announced schedule, Hill took the stage in long, large flowing black pants and a puff-sleeved white shirt.

She captured her audience immediately by “Killing Me Softly,” with a fast-paced rendition of the song that was a No. 1 hit for Roberta Flack in 1973. Admittedly, it was easy prey, having been worked up to an emotional crescendo by her DJ during the long wait. In the last stretch before her appearance, he played hits by Whitney Houston and MJ to the dancing and singing crowd.

The hopeful and inspiring “Everything is Everything,” so technically timely with its lyrical line “After winter, must come spring,” came next, after which Hill inexplicably exited the stage, and came back minutes later to deliver as rapidly as she had started, “Superstar” and the redemptive “Forgive Them Father.”

By this fourth song, it was clear that we would be treated mostly to new arrangements of Hill’s repertoire — faster, stronger, and livelier than the languorous mood that characterizes some of her melodies, and that ultimately seemed improvised on the spot. Pure live entertainment!

The slow, laid-back tempo of “How Many Mics” from The Score album, for example, was transformed into a furious torrent of guitar riffs and rapid rapping vocals. “Final Hour” got the same quickened treatment. At times though, the rock beats and techno tendencies of some songs drowned out her voice, which combined with her very fast delivery throughout the 1 hour 45 minute show might have made it hard for the Lauryn Hill novice to recognize the lyrics and melodies.

But this strategy of recreating her work through upbeat and unpredictable renditions of her most popular songs, and eventually an entirely different sound and vibe than Miseducation, resulted in a party atmosphere and prepared us for a surprise with “To Zion.”

Hill modified this personal song (inspired by her first pregnancy and motherhood) for her live performance; adding turntable-scratching purcussive sounds to the Motown vibes. She also allowed her band (consisting of a DJ, three backup singers, a bassist, a drummer, three guitarists, and three keyboard players ) to take some of the spotlight.

After “When It Hurts So Bad, I Used to Love Him,” and the first slowly delivered song of the show, “Nothing Even Matters,” she wiped away one tear in each eye. “You feel better now?” she asked.

By then, around 10:30 p.m., I was getting antsy for my favorite Fugees track, as well as all-time favorite song (incidentally, one that also tops President Barack Obama’s top 10 list for music magazine Blender in 2008): the broodingly haunting 1996 single “Ready or Not.”

But Hill instead played a powerful, rearranged hard rap on “Lost Ones,” “Ex-Factor,” “How Many Mics,” and “Every Ghetto, Every City,” before launching into a speedy yet melodic medley that included “Fu-Gee-La” and “To Zion,” among others.

Then at 11 p.m. sharp, the famous lines enraptured the room:

Ready Or Not, Here I Come, You Can’t Hide

Gonna Find You and Take it Slowly

Ready Or Not, Here I Come, You Can’t Hide

Gonna Find You and Make you want me.

Hill only caught her breath and slowed down for the original version of “Killing Me Softly.” At the end, in response to an encore, she started “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” which was originally sung with Bob Marley. “I want to give you some love I want to give you some good, good loving,” she melodized, holding in her arms a little girl (her daughter Sarah, I assume) whom she had waved to from backstage.

The Fugees singer cemented the new Ms. Hill sound in everyone’ ears and souls at the end, with another Bob Marley classic, “Could You Be Loved,” and “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which everyone had been yearning for all night.

So, the verdict on the magic in the room?

Was it her voice? More expert ears than mine have detected in recent years a certain rasp in her voice, perhaps the result of the more energized singing and rapping that are precisely the trademark of her new live sound. But it certainly has retained its deep, warm quality, even if it is harder to detect in a party environment full of screaming hardcore fans.

Is it the lyrics? It is true that they have been praised for the integrity and high morals and ideals they convey, which is increasingly rare. Hill — the songwriter — has even been described as “an intellectual” for her cleverly written lyrics and complex concepts. Both Miseducation and MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 were inspired by her spiritual growth and life experiences. Despite their popularity, her songs make you think. Also in contrast to popular fare in the industry, no clothes have been removed to promote her albums, and aside from “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Miseducation is free of profanity — which is rampant in Hip Hop and sub-genres.

One could say she scores high on the ethical scale.

Many have even praised her sophisticated flair and sense of fashion, which in her Fugees days she expressed through bringing a feminine touch to her generally male wardrobe.

To me, the most obvious reason for her international recognition as a crucial influence and pioneer of what is now called the “neo- or nu-soul” sub-genre, is her indefatigable quest for self-improvement and creative reinvention.

After a self-imposed exile from the public eye for several years and much introspection to confront her demons and disillusions about the music industry, she has reappeared — energized and ready to perform in new ways. Perhaps this is the essence of progressing as an artist. Instead of staying stuck in her 1990s sound, she has defied expectations and limitations and grown with the times; singing old songs differently, and delivering a show infused with a rock-reggae style that surprised everyone who was expecting the love-funk vibes of the Fugees era.

Was Lauryn Hill miseducated, or were we miseducated about Lauryn Hill? It might be both. In any case, she does sound like an artist to whom life-long learners might easily relate. At least students at MIT and other colleges might do, if only judging by the initial lyrics of her Miseducation album song “Final Hour”:

I treat this like my thesis

Well-written topic

Broken down into pieces

I introduce then produce

Words so profuse

It’s abuse how I juice up this beat.