Last night at Brooklyn, New York's Wingate Field, a crowd of thousands was braced for a major event. Lauryn Hill was playing a free concert in Crown Heights on a muggy summer's night just weeks after both of her Fugee bandmates had gone to the press complaining that she is the reason their reunion is falling apart.
There were so many questions hovering in the humidity based on her erratic performances of the past few years. Would Hill show up? How late would she be? Would she wear a crazy outfit, or fall down or go off on a rant? Some of the thousands waiting to find out had been lined up since early in the afternoon. Hundreds who showed up too late were milling about outside the gates, while at the back gate, Hill's older brother tried to get a crew of family members inside. "I'm Lauryn Hillâ's brother," he told the guard. "Well, that's unfortunate," security responded, staring in his face. "You're going to have to prove it." Soon, the Hill family was whisked backstage, as Senator Charles Schumer made his way out. Out on the sidewalk, people were pressed up against the fences. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz appeared onstage, promising the audience, "Lauryn Hill is here. She's here, that's the most important thing."
When Hill did make her entrance in front of an eleven-piece band and three backup singers, her face was heavily made up, but lovely. Her afro was the color of rust, and heavy jewelry dangled everywhere. She was overdressed for the heat in a long-sleeved ruffled blouse, oversized leather fringed vest, wide-legged plaid pants and platform shoes, almost as if she was mocking someone -- maybe even herself. And the music sounded like Hill looked: They were her hit songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but played over unrecognizable reggae rhythms and Afro-beat ska arrangements. She sang the favorites the crowd came to hear, but fans couldn't sing along because they didn't know these melodies, and because, well, Hill wasn't even singing. She was scatting and chanting and shuffling about. She performed an energetic rendition of "Lost Ones" fused with Bob Marley's "Natty Dread" and then "Final Hour" melded with Peter Tosh's "Downpressor Man," and "Zion" blended with Marley's "Iron, Lion, Zion." Sometimes it sounded beautiful, sometimes it sounded like babble. Each song -- upbeat, percussive basslines beneath Hill's rough, repetitive chanting -- was at least ten minutes long. The crowd sat in a collective stare, not quite sure what to make of it.
"Brooklyn, y'all remember this song?" Hill asked as she introduced the unrequited-love jam "Ex Factor." Her face was scrunched as she scatted and pleaded, "I just took your word for it, baby, I just took your word for it," repeating the words over and over and over again. "I want you to live for me, stop your compromising, I want you to live for me."
After a brief Bob Marley set featuring "Zimbabwe" and "Hammer," Hill announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, my voice is strained, but I'm gonna slow it down and try to sing you this love song." The song was Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I saw Your Face," and finally, for the first time all night, Hill sang. The crowd cheered her on enthusiastically. "I got fired because I'm missing work! I got fired because of you!" a female fan shouted, "You better bring it on! Sing me a song, baby!" As Lauryn belted out the ballad, her voice became less hoarse. Some of that rich smoothness returned.
After showing the crowd she's still got it, Hill launched into uptempo ska versions of all of the Fugees hits from their 1996 multiplatinum breakout album The Score. Fans got on their feet, dancing along with "How Many Mics," "Fu-Gee-La" and "Zealots," but when she rapped, her harsh flow came out as a strange staccato stuttering. She shuffled and spun and kicked her leg high up in the air with emphasis. Though her performance was shaky, her energy never wavered. On "Ready or Not," Hill rapped all three verses, sounding more familiar on Pras and Wyclef's parts than her own. "Killing Me Softly" excited the audience further, and all of Winthrop Field sang along.
"Before we go, I got a question for you Brooklyn," Hill said as she wound down. "It's a really, really valid question." She then sang the Shirelle's 1960 classic "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," perhaps testing her fans loyalty, though they were still right there with her. The two-hour-plus show closed with the forewarning but fun-loving "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and everyone's hands darted into the air. Lauryn Hill was spinning like a funk star ruling her own little world. "Good to see you," she said as she exited the stage, "Very good to see you!" Hill waved and waved like she didn't want to leave. A moment later, she ducked back out with one of her sons in her arms, and waved goodbye, one last time.