First, let’s talk about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, because really, you can’t talk about Lauryn Hill without talking about Miseducation.
For me, and probably the 12 million people who bought this seminal album in the late 90s, and continue to do so, it is not simply one of the greatest albums, it also offers a space for nostalgic indulgence, that we want to occupy again and again. As Talib Kweli claimed recently in an article in defence of Hill amidst the negative press, “if you’ve never listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, you haven’t lived.”
The album was a massive success, both commercially and critically, but more importantly, it resonated with listeners and fans across genres, in a personal way. Miseducation philosophised about the bigger world, on subjects such as commercialism and the music industry, and taught us things about the smaller one, speaking of a multitude of loves in a real and honest way. Also, as a teenage girl struggling with self identity when the album was released, it was a source of both inspiration and reassurance.
So when Hill announced a UK tour this year, I snapped up tickets promptly, despite stories of tardiness, unrecognisable variations of her songs, and disrespect towards the audience. It would seem that it is almost trendy to talk about a Hill concert in a negative way; how many hours she was late coming on stage, which songs she butchered the most, how loud the boos were from the audience, and how many people walked out. Little is said about the set and even less about the performances themselves.
Even in the days leading to her only date in Manchester, reviews from her first London show were worrying. In a review in The Telegraph, James Hall declared the show as “a 78-minute lesson in how to murder your own best songs.” I began to doubt my choice in forking out £50 on tickets, and wondered whether I should resell. But then, my friend referred me to a much more favourable review in Metro (not available online) for her second date in London. Perhaps it was a matter of perspective, I pondered.
Regardless of my expectations for the show itself, we had doubts about Hill’s punctuality and decided to head to the venue around 8.30pm, a whole hour and a half after the advertised opening time for the doors. This was a wise decision it would seem. The Juicy DJs entertained the crowd well, playing a variety of Hip Hop classics. This was followed by Hill’s own DJ, again, playing a range of familiar Hip Hop, Soul and Reggae.
Around 9:45pm, there was some mild booing from the crowd. Unsure of what time Hill was supposed to be on stage (I found out later it was supposed to be 9pm), we waited. At 10pm, the band and backing singers began to emerge on stage. The band started to play, the singers began to sing, and then we heard Hill’s disembodied voice, singing Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Soul Rebel. For a brief moment, I feared that she was actually not here at all.
Finally, Hill appeared on stage, and it seemed the crowd forgot about the (up to) 3 hours of waiting prior. The version of Killing Me Softly that followed was only recognisable through the lyrics, as the whole arrangement, including the melodic structure, was vastly different. The Miseducation segment comprised of her best known and most loved songs from the album, all rearranged into different genres.
These new versions were not necessarily good or bad, it is that they were so far removed musically from their originals that they seemed like different songs which required a complete separate set of judgement and appreciation. I felt that some worked whilst others did not. The Hip Hop heavy Everything is Everything was transformed into a funk/rock number and was fresh, but Ex-Factor laced with a ska twang removed the simplicity and emotional core that is fundamental to the song’s message.
Before Hill delved into The Unplugged segment of the show, she briefly addressed the booing from the crowd, asking “who are the dissenters?” Those who bravely strayed from the “Church of Lauryn” by booing were now less courageous, and other than a few mumbles here and there, most were silent.
This was a rather strange experience; it was almost as if Hill was courting for negativity and was itching to throw someone out, as she had done at previous shows. However, as she strung the first chords of Mr. Intentional on her guitar, the awkwardness diminished. This acoustic section culminated with Turn Your Lights Down Low, one of Hill’s most popular songs post-Miseducation. Hill sang and played beautifully, and the crowd began to embrace the performance, perhaps due to the lesser degree of alteration compared to the first act.
By this point, few people around me have already given up and left. The payoff for those who decided to take a chance on Hill’s artistic redirection, and preserved through unfamiliar territories was great, and were treated to a set of high energy and engaging performance of Fugees’ hits. Hill rapped, sang and gave her all on a medley from The Score. When Hill repeatedly asked if Manchester was ready, and the sample of Enya’s haunting humming from Boadicea came on, the audience was now in full participation-cheering, singing and rapping along.
The Fugees section ended with another rendition of Killing Me Softly, this time much closer to the original. The show was rounded off with covers of a trio of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ hits, Jammin’, Is This Love and Could You Be Loved, as well as Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). Hill’s renditions were pleasant, and the audience appeared to enjoy her versions of these classic.
For me, the most remarkable part of the show was Hill’s voice itself, because regardless of whether the rearrangements of her songs worked or not, her vocal ability cannot be questioned. Hill’s tone was rich and expression was sincere with emotion. She sang and rapped effortlessly and passionately, and never appeared to be trying too hard. In many ways, although the version of the songs may have differed, her vocals could have been lifted off a recording.
The stand out performance, for me, was Black Rage. Hearing Hill’s own version of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music for the first time, I was taken aback by the juxtaposition of a familiar (and beloved) melody and upbeat song, against such vivid and bleak portrayals of black life-“Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person/Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens/Black human packages tied up in strings/Black rage can come from all these kinds of things.” Through this song and performance, she reminds us of her incredible writing abilities, but also the socio-political edge she has over her contemporaries. Further, having dedicated the song to the recent events in Ferguson, USA only last month, Hill demonstrates that her music is more relevant than ever, and she can still evoke an emotional response through it.
Yes, we cannot talk about Hill without talking about Miseducation. But that does not mean we have to hold it hostage every time we go and see her perform, expecting an exact replicate of the album; no more than we can say we are the same person now as we were when we first heard the album over 15 years ago.
As Kweli has argued, regardless of Hill’s current or future artist ventures, she has already given us Miseducation and nothing will change that. The teenage me will forever be grateful for that strong feminist voice, particularly for someone who was falling in love with Hip Hop, even when it did not always love her back. And the adult me will always have those songs of all kinds of loves, because regardless of my past, current or future situation, I will always have Nothing Even Matters and To Zion when I fall in love, and Ex-Factor and I Used to Love Him when I fall out of it.