We Won’t Let Lauryn Be Great

This past Saturday marked my third time seeing Ms. Lauryn Hill perform live in concert.

The first time was 1999.
Fox Theater.
Atlanta, Georgia.
The Miseducation Tour (with Outkast as the opening act).

I was 12 and this was my first concert experience. Even though this was 12 years ago, I remember the night shockingly well. Since Miseducation was her debut, she didn’t really have a choice but to run through her album. The way she did it was true to the album, and everyone around me was in hysterics.

People tearing up during “To Zion” & “Tell Him”, dancing during “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Every Ghetto, Every City”, getting their MC on during “Lost Ones” and “Everything is Everything”, and singing much louder than they should during “Ex-Factor” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”. To this day, I have never seen people from all walks of life react to a collection of songs the way concert-goers did that night.

The second time was 2007.
Wingate Park.
Brooklyn, New York.
MLK Free Concert Series (with Sean Kingston as the opening act).

I was at Dartmouth for the summer, but made the trek to NYC that weekend to see Lauryn perform. She had been a ghost for the better part of the decade and the chance to see her grand comeback was too good to miss.

It was probably the worst concert experience I’ve ever had. The combination of her going on stage 2+ hours late and the acid-jazz renditions of her hits that she was performing made it physically uncomfortable to watch. I had never left a concert angry before this show. I’m still angry about that night. I publically swore never to see her again.

The third time was Saturday.
Governor’s Island
New York
Rock the Bells

I did not go to Rock the Bells to see Lauryn. First and foremost, I wanted to see Baduizm and as I have previously noted from a few posts back, Erykah won Rock the Bells. By a landslide. I also wanted to see Illmatic, because I know every word and I wanted to see how big his goonsquad would be on stage (Answer=72, 73 if you include Steve Nash). Lauryn was in between Erykah and Nasir and as someone who swore never to see her again, I left her set puzzled, confused, not mad, but not happy.

She started off the set with this statement:

People say I never play stuff the old way. Well tonight, I’m gonna play it the old way.

When she said this, one of the loudest collective screams of joy I’ve ever experienced occured. Finally, after a decade of doing it her way, Lauryn was going to give the fans exactly what they wanted. No experimentation, no dubstep Zion remixes, no 7-times sped up, 20-minute versions of Ex-Factor. Just the album in its purest form, the way it sounded in 1998.

And then she started.

It wasn’t that she outright lied to us, but her definition of “the old way” and the few thousand people in attendance’s definition of “the old way” just aren’t the same. As she marched through the album, jazzing up some of her most heartfelt songs, in my section the resounding cheers slowly turned into ambivalent claps, which, by song 6, quickly turned the crowd into a sea of people not clapping, with arms crossed, wondering when Nas was going on.

I was confused at where I stood on her performance, because unlike her previous performance I saw, this one, musically, was pretty awesome. If you had seen one of her previous debacles, this was easily an improvement. Sure it wasn’t like I imagined it, but it was still entertaining. But I still wasn’t happy. I couldn’t even pretend to be. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, she just happened to not be doing much right, in the eyes of most of the $99 ticket buyers.

Then, to wrap up her set, she played 3 Fugees songs, brought out Pras, the band played the songs true to the original tune and to the same tempo, and the crowd went crazy. I couldn’t tell if she just gave in and gave the people what they wanted or what, but during the last 15 minutes of her set, she regained a fan base that she was in jeopardy of permanently losing. When she finished, the applause was back at a high level, as if we had all forgotten about the first 45 minutes of the set. And then she was gone.

When I woke up the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lauryn’s performance and the way we all reacted to it. After a good amount of internal back and forth, it became very clear to me what the issue was. There’s something about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that is different than all other records. It’s something shockingly personal for so many people, so personal that they can’t even entertain the idea of hearing it a different way.

Artists jazzing up their classics for a live set is nothing new. I think back to Jay-Z’s MTV Unplugged album and his entire Fade to Black set, and all it is is ?uestlove and the boys jazzing up his greatest hits. And people loved it. Even during Badu’s Rock The Bells set, she played around with some of the tracks in Baduizm, but there was nothing but good to be said about her 2011 take on her classic album.

Why can’t we give Lauryn the same leeway that we give other classic artists?

It’s easy to blame her, trust me, I’ve been doing it for years now. It’s easy to call her crazy and say that she can’t sing anymore and say that she’s just a mean woman that hates her fans. I’ve also done my fair share of that. But what about us, the fans? Why have we put this album on such a high pedastal that not even Lauryn is allowed to touch it. At what point did The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill become our album and not hers. Why aren’t we letting this album leave 1998? Why aren’t we letting Lauryn be one of the most gifted artists of the past few decades by letting her merge her past works with her current passions. The tension-filled relationship between Lauryn and her fan base is as much our fault as it is hers.

She’s up on that stage dying for you to accept 2011 Lauryn, while at the same time refusing to let you box her into simply 1998 Lauryn. She’s an artist and, for one reason or another, won’t even be a puppet to her most loyal of fans. Not for a full set, at least. Is it right, who knows? But it’s Lauryn and unless we really want her to never show her face again, we have to let her do her thing.

If you really want to listen to Miseducation in its purest form, throw on some headphones and listen to it. That’s what I’m doing right now and it is glorious. Maybe you’ll adapt to her new style and maybe you won’t, but when you start to get mad at her for changing, never forget that she made one of the best albums in history and that album has done a lot more for you than you have done for her.

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About Rembert Browne

NYC via ATL //// rembert.browne@gmail.com 500daysasunder.wordpress.com
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3 Responses to We Won’t Let Lauryn Be Great

  1. eric says:

    i thought she started off strong and ended strong, as you noted, but to me the set was marked by her behavior: she walked off stage twice for no clear reason, motioned to her background singers and band non-stop and to no effect (this definitely took away from the show), and did a lot of very frenetic dancing that only reaffirmed the rumors. in her defense, i thought the band was way too loud and that the synth guy (the lone white man) should have eased up and discontinued the discordant gamma ray sounds. i appreciated how hard she wanted to bring it, and at moments she did. Should also be noted that she didn’t do the entire album and that during her appearance with nas her mic was off. this didn’t stop her from motioning behind her.

  2. Alvin Owusu says:

    It’s a catch-22, if you will. The reason why we ALL love The Miseducation of Lauren Hill is because it takes us back to 1998. It reminds us of how it felt to be a youngster first starting to deal with emotions. It reminds us of Jordan hitting that last shot over Byron Russell. It reminds us of everything good and special about that time but if we were asked to “be the person we were back then,” none of us would know how. I was 15 and I can’t even fathom tapping into how my 15 year old self would act or carry himself. So in that same vein, how is it fair of us to expect the same from her? These aren’t rock anthems that get better as they’re played louder and louder in front of massive crowds in over-commercialized arenas. These are intimate songs that are best appreciated in smaller venues where we can see Lauren and she can actually see and feel us. Yeah, it sucks for us but I wonder how much it sucks for Lauren.

  3. Lewis says:

    I gotta disagree a little. I think it’s simply an aesthetic matter. Some songs sound good funked up/sped up, some songs don’t. As you noted, Erykah didn’t play all of her songs album-style, but she was tasteful about it. And some of her songs were even a tad slower on the album–she didn’t force it. Lauryn’s songs, for the most part, sounded forced. The recent “Ready or Not” was the clear highlight wasn’t because it was the most accurate to the original–it too was noticeably sped up, and definitely funked up, especially during the last chorus. But that worked! The song took it well, transformed into something slightly different, but just as good. Her other songs just didn’t take the transformation as well. If she wants to do an acid-jazz album so badly, why doesn’t she does do one, rather than forcing her old songs into that model? Not to mention the fact that she couldn’t even keep up with her own damn songs at these tempos–she lost her breath and missed more lyrics than any MC or singer that day by a huge margin. Hope you caught Black Star, they were right up there with EB and Nas.

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