by Dom Jones
Most of us met Lauryn Hill as the young, rebellious, and beautiful singer in Sister Act 2. It was her dream to be a star, but her confidence was shattered by a bitter mother whose husband had left her for his dream of musical fame as well, but hadn’t had much luck. In the movie, Lauryn’s character defies her mother in pursuit of her dream, a characteristic that I believe comes from Lauryn herself. She has always defied the odds, going against industry norms to compose both authentic and remarkable music as an emcee, singer, and producer. Throughout her career, she has been a trailblazer in her music and as a woman in the industry. Her performance at Paradise Rock Club, February 13th, proved that she is still at the forefront of her craft.
I’ll be honest. After a 2 1/2 hour wait, I (and most of the crowd) was pretty pissed. Lauryn, we love you, but COME ON. Does talent usurp punctuality and professionalism? I thought that it would have been smart for her to at least have an opener to mitigate some of the wait time, but alas, we were to only hear the sound of Queen L-Boogie’s voice that night. And I’ll tell you… IT WAS WORTH THE WAIT.
You’d think that someone who hasn’t released an album in 14 years couldn’t really come anew with that material, but that is exactly what Ms. Hill did. Taking her own music and rearranging them into styles that reflected jazz, reggae, and even Spanish music, we heard familiar tunes in a completely new way. And it wasn’t just solo stuff: she performed music from her time with The Fugees as well, a welcome addition to the party.
One disconcerting element of the show was Lauryn’s disposition. At first, she seemed frustrated, almost angry – yelling at the sound man throughout the breaks in her songs. Turn this up, turn that down! Erratic hand and body motions and a frowning face made her a singing storm that, though I loved, I was also concerned about. It didn’t stop there: she barked orders at her band members as well when she felt they were playing too loudly or softly, and I thought that she and her guitar player might even come to blows when their back and forth lasted a full song.
I’m not sure when it was, but there was a moment of release in the second half of the show. It was as though she had been possessed by some ominous cloud and her songs had allowed her to exhale all of the bad energy. She began to dance and smile a little bit, and then… she just let go, inviting us to sing along with her. This was the Lauryn that I remembered, admired, and always wanted to sip tea and sing with. She was lighthearted and kind, yet serious and focused about her craft. When I think about it, I can understand the Lauryn of now: pained and a product of years of struggle and strife. From her tumultuous relationship with Rohan Marley to her more recent legal troubles around taxes owed, life can be taxing enough without celebrity.
Let’s face it: Lauryn was a beacon for many of us. She was the quadruple threat: singer, rapper, producer, actress. She was someone who made me feel that I could have ownership and mastery of my art, be relevant in the music industry, make music that was meaningful, stay true to my African heritage, AND keep my clothes on. But she was struggling from the start: her much talked about relationship with Fugees group member Wyclef, her catastrophic rise as a solo artist, marriage, children, the pressure to produce an even better second album must have been such a load of pressure. So, she left us and went to mend.
What I saw at Paradise Rock Club was not a broken woman, singing old, tired songs. I saw a phoenix, reignited and reinvented, returning from battle, both personal and professional. And even though we can see the battle scars, she is still our hero, still killing us softly with her song.