Review: Lauryn Hill does it all her own way at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg
Twenty years ago, the world had never seen anything like Lauryn Hill: An incandescent musical prodigy who could sing like a soul queen and spit with the finest MCs.
Twenty years later, we’ve still never seen anyone quite like L. Boogie. Which may be why she can get away with booking a tour with no new music, hitting the stage some 80 minutes late, remolding her signature hits until they’re virtually unrecognizable — and somehow leaving a crowd enthralled by the end.
Such was the case at Hill’s show Tuesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, where she displayed the ferocious chops that once led her to be crowned music’s Next Big Thing, but also the volatility that ultimately kept her from getting there. You get both with Lauryn Hill, no negotiation.
Her enigmatic reputation as a performer comes at a cost. As the clock ticked well past her scheduled 9:30 p.m. start, fans started to grumble. “I feel like I’m being forced to sit here,” one groused as a DJ killed time on stage. “She better be good and high!” yelled another. The show ended around 12:10 a.m.; quite a few fans didn’t make it that long, and the house was far from sold out to begin with.
But Hill, a 41-year-old mother of six, isn’t thirsty for anyone’s acceptance. Backed by a band of 12, including three singers and a DJ, most of her hits sounded nothing like they did on the Fugees’ The Score and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her ‘90s classics of alt-hip-hop and neo-soul.
From opener Everything is Everything on, the whole set barrelled at a breakneck pace, with Hill rapping even more frenetically than on record on Lost Ones and How Many Mics (the Wyclef and Pras verses included). All night, she seemed electrified, constantly gesticulating to her band and crew to adjust her levels and give her more, more, MORE.
As a singer, Hill’s blunt but textured voice can sock you on a powerhouse song like her cover of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, but she also pulled back just a tad for covers of Sade’s synth-funky Your Love is King and joyful The Sweetest Taboo.
Almost every song got some sort of sonic makeover. When It Hurts So Bad was a vicious slice of soul; Forgive Them Father a snarling funk tune that saw Hill spitting her lines in a violent staccato. Ex Factor and Final Hour were electrifying, with thundering percussion and screaming guitar solos. How Many Mics transformed from bouncy hip-hop into something close to swing; To Zion became a gospelly jazz number; Fu-Gee-La was pure and sweaty New jack swing.
There were, no doubt, a few who didn’t care for the new arrangements, who would’ve rather heard closer Doo Wop (That Thing) with its original confectionery sheen, rather than the tight, muscular protein bar it became Tuesday. Only a few songs sounded close enough like their former selves for fans to sing along, including the aching Ready Or Not and vintage, triumphant Killing Me Softly.
But that’s Hill: Blessed with blinding talent, but unmoved by complaint and unyielding to anyone. For all her influence on today’s multihyphenate stars, Hill has forged this tour — this “caravan,” she’s calling it, this “diaspora calling” — in a distinctly noncommercial vision. She should turn it into a live album — her ambitious new arrangements and revitalized delivery might make it feel like the long-awaited follow-up to Miseducation that the world never got — but it’s hard to imagine she will.
Her unlikely openers included Ghanaian rapper E.L.; electro-hypnotic duo Chakra Khan, an offshoot of Orlando’s Soliloquists of Sound; and Nigerian singer Seun Kuti, son of revolutionary Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. As a 13-piece band stampeded behind him, the captivating Kuti sang and played sax, swinging and shouting about inequity and oppression, dancing and flailing his arms until his shirt was gone, his skin glistening in the light.
Do these sound like openers chosen by a woman desperate to reclaim the pop spotlight she occupied 20 years ago? No, they sound like openers chosen by a woman inspired to wring new and vibrant life from the songs that made her a star. They sound like Lauryn Hill circa 2016. There’s still no one else like her.
-- Jay Cridlin