The Sweetest Thing
I cannot quit Lauryn Hill.
Several days ago, if you had asked me what I might entitle my post-Hill Chicago show blog, I would have said something like “Ex-Factor,” “Lost One,” or “Losing Lauryn.” Instead, I sit here, after witnessing my first Lauryn Hill show in years, having named this entry after my favorite Lauryn Hill song.
Like many of you, I saw clips of Hill lecturing a Brooklyn crowd for their lack of Job-like patience, after they had waited hours for her to appear on stage. Even Prince, rumor has it, left a show before the first notes of Hill’s set began. So I was ready. Ready to proclaim the end of my Hill fandom. Ready to abandon a fierce loyalty for Hill that began the moment I saw the Fugees’ “Nappy Heads” video. Ready to forget how geeked my sister and I were when we both recognized that “the chick from the Fugees” was one Rita Watson in Sister Act 2. I had previously defended the three chords that make up the musical arrangement for Hill’s unplugged album. But I wasn’t sure if I could rationalize Hill’s latest pre-show antics. Sure, I could wait an hour or two–I had already been waiting several years–for Hill to bless me with her presence. But four hours accompanied with a lecture about how much she had sacrificed for me, anonymous member in a crowd of her fans, punctuated with maternal-toned “you understands?” That was the stop where I got off. Yes, I had fortified myself with pessimism.
But she showed up. And, for a superstar, started her show on time. Slated to begin at 11:30, Hill was on stage by 11:55–a remarkably amazing feat, given recent history. Ms. Hill reintroduced herself to the Chicago crowd with an impressive rendition of Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah,” immediately filling me with the hope that my pessimistic approach to the night was a needless defense mechanism. Hill followed her Marley cover with a string of Fugees’ and solo hits: “Lost Ones” (at 4000 BPM); “When it Hurts So Bad/I Used to Love Him”; a semi-decent version of “Ex-Factor” made something a smidgen above tolerable by the participation–and hope–of the crowd and by the fact that it’s practically everyone’s Ms. Lauryn Hill jam; “Final Hour”; “How Many Mics”; “I Only Have Eyes for You/Zealots”; “Fu-Gee-La”; “Ready or Not”; “Killing Me Softly”; a version of “Turn Your Lights Down Low” that reminded me of why it’s one of my favorite love songs ever; and finally “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
Granted, the arrangements for these Fugees and Hill classics were slightly strange–and may foreshadow where Hill intends to explore sonically in the future–but not nearly as bizarre as Youtube clips suggested. Yes, the jacket and the electric blue eye shadow were questionable, but the shoes–Hill has always worn notoriously fierce shoes on stage–from where I could see, were impeccable. Hill has lost some of the vocal clarity and strength that attracted legions of fans, and her flow is not as seemlessly sick as it used to be, but unlike Hill’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitney Houston, I was not left with the impression that what she has lost is irretrievable. Moreover, there were glimmers of vintage L-Boogie throughout the night: her good mood, her direct interactions with the crowd, the sporadic and brief paroxysms of trademark L-Boogie dance moves. And instead of humming “The Way We Were” on my way to the car, I waxed enthusiastic about how Ms. Hill gave me enough to still believe–that she’s almost back, that she wants to record and perform again.
I understand. Some, many of y’all just don’t get it. Just cannot comprehend those of us who ride hard for Ms. Hill through damn near anything–and on the strength of one album. I won’t bother to convince you. Is Lauryn Hill the greatest rapper? No. The greatest singer? No. But I do know that the combination, the coalescence of the two more than likely makes her more formidable and impressive than just about any artist on the tip of your tongue.
In so many ways, I wanted to be like Lauryn Hill. I wanted that thing, her je ne sais quoi. I wanted to go to Columbia. I wanted a “head full of problems and a hand full of nappy roots.” Lauryn Hill didn’t hang with the boys, she was so much doper than the boys–and that they had to respect. I wanted a flow, the ultimate intelligent vocab like hers. I wanted to be able to articulate my story in a way that would make others feel that it was theirs. I wanted to know I had the strength to leave it all behind should the stakes get too high. I wanted to be okay with the flaws that comprised my humanity. I wanted to know that my survival is always more important than how pleasurable forsaking who I really am may have been to others. I wanted to merge all those iterations of blackness–the rap, the soul, the reggae, the consciousness–into my own art. I wanted to be brown and beautiful.
Seeing Ms. Hill was a reminder. A reminder of all the things she represented to my young self. A reminder of what hip-hop, black music used to be. A reminder of a most beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful moment that was the (black) 90s. A reminder of the cohort of soul singers who have been elusive of late probably, partially because of our harsh demands of them. Indeed, despite its cache as a 90′s hip hop mantra, to represent ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. The Ms. Hill today reminds me of that. Nonetheless, I am glad to have seen her, and to know that through it all she survives. And that, though complicated and flawed, she remains brown and ever beautiful.