If this story's headline made you blink twice in disbelief, rest assured, young undergraduate, your corneas haven't failed you yet. It's true: The queen of hip hop herself, Ms. Lauryn Hill, graced our very own Flames Central with her jeweled sceptre of poetic wisdom last Friday, May 27.
The 36-year-old MC, singer, producer and actress was the first woman to win five Grammy Awards in one night for her only solo album-cum-hip-hop-classic, 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. In the 13 years since then, however, Hill has resided in relative musical obscurity, citing disillusionment with fame and the music industry as the cause. This is why her tour, the aptly titled "Moving Target: Extended Intimate Playdate Series," has been eagerly awaited.
The show started at 9 p.m. with opening act the Hot 8 Brass Band, a New Orleans group blending hip hop with traditional southern brass. Even though they played non-stop for an hour, the crowd, already restless for Lauryn, was surprisingly receptive to the band's smooth sounds.
After elbowing my way to stage right to grab a prime spot for Lauryn's performance, I made friends with a venue security guard who, upon discovering that I was a journalist, kindly introduced me to Edward "Juicy" Jackson, trombone player for the Hot 8 Brass Band. When I asked him how he felt about having to precede a musical legend such as Hill, he explained that the band had to "be different because she's the queen of hip hop."
While I was busy making new friends, I snuck a look at the crowd and realized the sheer restless anticipation that was almost tangibly perceivable in the dank bar air. For many of these fans, who had shelled out up to $89 per ticket, this was the culmination of years of wearing out Hill's debut album on cassette, and later, playing her songs on loop on their iPods. The interim music, which consisted of Bob Dylan classics played over the bar's speaker system, added to the air of timeless talent.
Needless to say, I was stoked.
At 11:15, the stage lights dimmed once again at the presence of Lauryn's "hype man," a DJ and MC who played reggae and hip hop classics, pumping up the crowd for Lauryn's appearance with Bob Marley favourites, Notorious B.I.G. remixes and Kanye staples.
After almost two hours of tested audience patience and chants of "Lauryn," Hill herself came onstage at midnight. She opened with the Miseducation favourite "Everything is Everything" to a weary, yet ecstatic, crowd.
Hill's concerts have been compared to Dylan's: characterized by live song performances hardly resembling their respective studio versions. This was especially apparent on "The Sweetest Thing" and "When It Hurts So Bad," the latter ballad to which a church organ and funkier beat were added. When considering that these songs were released 13 years ago, however, one would understand that Hill must have tired of performing her hits in the exact same form. It's possible that, just as photographs capture moments in time, certain songs may better represent who an artist was instead of who they are now. Thus, I appreciated her creative license in putting her late-nineties fan favorites in line with her current musical vision. Casual fans, however, may have been put off by this.
Hill then mixed up her set by including some numbers from her time with the American hip-hop group the Fugees in the mid-nineties. Her performance of the Fugees's version of "Killing Me Softly" showed that her voice was in no way diminished, even if it did crack or sound somewhat tired in other numbers around one in the morning.
Her frenzied conductor-like hand directions to her band and back-up singers throughout her performance, punctuated with wispy sleeve waves and stiletto stomps, were somewhat distracting and confusing at times, but proved that Hill is not just a singer or MC, but an orchestrator of sound. There were significant sound feedback issues, however, perhaps triggered by Hill's insistent motion to her sound personnel to turn various mic volumes up higher.
The grand finale occurred around 1:30 a.m., when Hill closed with an explosive performance of her number-one hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)," to which the audience rapped and sang along.
"I love this," is what Hill proclaimed before she left, after she finished signing autographs and shaking hands with the front row of the singing and dancing Calgary crowd.
Ultimately, those expecting to see The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill were sorely disappointed. Those coming to see the evolution of Lauryn Hill, however, left sweaty, tired and satisfied.
Perhaps my new-found security guard friend, who wished to remain anonymous, said it best:
"If you're not a fan, it's because you haven't heard her music."