"Once the band is done setting up, we’ll bring Ms. Hill to rock the stage, for real!" the DJ promised Saturday night at New York City’s Highline Ballroom while fading between syrupy reggae cuts. Fans were skeptical – it wasn’t the first time they’d heard that line. "You know what that means," one nearby patron groaned, echoing the sentiments of the crowd.
This is the reputation that precedes Lauryn Hill live: after years away from the public eye and a slew of late appearances and chaotic performances, Ms. Hill was well aware that she had to gain back trust. So when she hit the stage, promptly as scheduled, she offered the olive branch: "It’s been a while, it’s been a struggle," she said, choking up beneath a hearty smile to raucous applause. "But we’re pushing through it."
The one-night-only performance was billed as a celebration of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the seminal rap/R&B/reggae opus that launched Hill’s solo career and made her a household name. However, it was no oldies show, as she insisted on reinventing her most precious material at every step. When she launched into a dynamic, lover’s rock rendition of "Everything Is Everything," it took fans a moment to acclimate to the up-tempo rhythm, but the song ultimately shined. In recent years, Hill has been criticized for restructuring her classics around rambling funk grooves and unfamiliar melodies, but tonight she and her six-piece band struck a worthwhile balance between new, exciting ideas and old, comfort-food standards.
As "Light My Fire" melted into a roaring cover of the Wailers' "Concrete Jungle," Lauryn appeared gleefully matured. Her voice arrived earthy and full, less that of the slick-talking sister from up the block of her early years, and more of a refined, hip-hop soul-mother – fittingly, her children watched Mommy from the balcony, and a few even popped up on stage to kick some prepubescent rhymes. After an extended performance of "To Zion," her firstborn son, for whom the song was written and now well into his teens, flashed a peace sign to the crowd from his seat.
Between songs, Ms. Hill addressed her audience like an ex-lover, pleading for one more chance. "This is our love story," she said. "There’s a hostility out there, but we’ve got to protect this love. We’ve got to resurrect it." After a pensive rendition of "Nothing Even Matters" – sans D’Angelo, yet still performed most loyally to its recorded version – she extended the metaphor. "That’s the back and forth," she explained. "It's confusion, but it's always love. Sometimes we want that person to realize their full potential, just like we want to realize our potential. But it's always love."
The night wasn’t without a few tense moments. Before dipping into the Fugees back-catalogue to perform "Ready or Not" and "Fu-Gee-La," Hill had a fairly long, microphone-less exchange with a member of the audience. Though it’s unclear what was said, her face was somber and band-members tried to diffuse the situation without letting it sweep attention completely. Earlier, she spotted someone in the crowd and honed in, repeating, "I see you, and I acknowledge you," for several moments. "Sometimes when the elephant walks into the room you pretend you don’t see it, but I see you." Despite these bits, she kept the show in order, cueing her band to the millisecond and EQ-ing levels with the sound engineer mid-performance. She was comfortable and confident on stage, seductively tracing her frame while cooing "You might win some but you just lost me," flawlessly covering Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder, and just nailing those crucial falsettos on "Ex Factor." "Who’s crazy now baby?" she riffed at the song’s end, clutching a black handkerchief to dab sweat and tears.
Before her last number, Hill addressed her own elephant in the room: "I had to make sure I was safe and my family was safe. I never abandoned you," she insisted to her supporters. "I was always on my way back. People forget how young I was when I started, and for how many years, non-stop. . . ." The crowd cheered her on, eager to forgive. It was a long-overdue moment of reconciliation: an acknowledgement that the honeymoon phase was long gone, and it was a disservice to the relationship to fixate on past times, no matter how unforgettable they were.
"New York City, I love you, and you love me, and we're coming back and doing this thing right," she promised. "Thank you for being there." She closed with the invincible "Doo Wop (That Thing)," reminding us one last time what we already knew: Lauryn is only human.