For a few minutes this weekend — specifically, on Saturday evening, at the end of her set at the New York stop of the Rock the Bells festival — Lauryn Hill showed us what could have been. In the year and change since she’s re-emerged as a live performer, Hill has stubbornly insisted on playing faster versions of the tracks from her classic solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, often often making them unrecognizable and angering concertgoers. The generous way to explain this is to say that Hill, after years of battling her former Fugees bandmate (and ex-partner) Wyclef Jean, and the music industry in general (see “To Zion”), has returned and is committed to doing things her way. The less generous take is that she’s upped the tempo to cover up the fact that she can’t sing as well as she used to. The truth, as evidenced by her performance on Saturday, lies somewhere in the middle.
For most of her set, Hill stuck to the new script. But then came a surprise appearance from from her other ex-Fugees bandmate, Pras (a man who once said, “Before I work with Lauryn Hill again, you will have a better chance of seeing Osama Bin Laden and [George W.] Bush in Starbucks having a latte, discussing foreign policies”). Together, they rampaged through Fugees single “Ready Or Not,” with Hill leading the way. And as she knocked out both the absent (duh) Wyclef’s bits and her own potent verse (“So while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone /And defecating on your microphone”), the sleepy crowd erupted. And the two weren’t done. While Lauryn pulled her many children on the stage to share the spotlight, Pras faux-cajoled her into doing one more song. She relented, shutting things down with a rendition of “Killing Me Softly” that flirted with her former greatness. Reviews of the show were harsh, and the masses probably won’t be satisfied until Hill turns back the clock completely. But on Saturday, Hill proved that if she really wanted to, she could take us back there.