Lauryn Hill, Budokan, Jan. 21, 1999

I just watched Lauryn Hill’s performance at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago online and marveled at how little her live show had changed in 20 years. Here’s my take on her first tour, which was published in the Japan Times but isn’t on the internet.

Lauryn Hill opened her Jan. 21 Budokan concert—the first date on her inaugural world tour—by singing the gospel standard, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” With the hall lights down, Hill delivered the song offstage to only organ accompaniment, as if it were an invocation. “I sing because I’m happy,” goes the most memorable line, which rides on an ascending glissando that’s supposed to indicate a closer proximity to God through singing. Hill did without the glissando, and though it might have been a simple stylistic decision, it gave the line a more secular feel, setting the tone for what was to come.

God knows, Lauryn Hill has much to be happy about. Her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has topped every entertainment-related publication’s best album list for 1998, and has sold more than three million copies in the U.S. alone. She is in constant demand as a writer and producer, having already worked on tracks for, among others, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Cece Wynans. And she’s been nominated for every Grammy there is except microphone placement.

By themselves, these accomplishments and accolades don’t necessarily add up to anything more than flavor-of-the-year status, but Hill offers something that few 23-year-old superstar divas would even conceive of. More than simply aiming to be the baddest (male or female) M.C. or the richest (all connotations) soul singer on the block, Hill means to be the conscience of her community.

And when I say community, I’m talking borderless. The warmth in the ovation that greeted the singer as she took the stage with her huge complement of musicians, DJs, and singers was unmistakable. Tottering about on perilously stacked heels, and singing “Ex-Factor,” a song about the shock of suddenly realizing that the love you thought was permanent is not, there was something jarring about the juxtaposition of the desperation in the vocals with the outpouring of affection from the arena. “This is crazy,” she sang.

Hill attracts this kind of devotion because she situates everything she does in the realm of the personal. Her life is an open book. Hip-hop, of course, is dominated by the self-promoting confessional voice, which says if you don’t like how I’m living, it’s too bad. Hill’s candor is different, since it attempts to make sympathetic listeners out of everyone in earshot. On the standard rap boast “Superstar,” which she sang next, her targets are somewhere else. All of us in the house were made to feel we were in on the bitchy jokes (“if your rhymes sound like mine/I’m taking a percentage”), because the bad guys are too dumb to get it.

Consequently, her modified Fugees medley had a certain gleeful bite. Hill came of age in the group, and not just musically. The Fugees dared to fight the hip-hop status quo—there was a mission to their music—and when she broke with Wyclef Jean and Pras it was obviously more bitter than it would have been had the split been simply a creative one. In concert, she kicked “Fu-Gee-La” up into a faster, more danceable tempo and played with the tension throughout “Ready or Not,” wherein the band achieved a dub laxity that grooved irresistibly. The audience, again, was happy to be in on the rub.

Disillusionment is more specifically addressed on “Lost Ones,” which she introduced by telling the audience, “You know, money isn’t the root of all evil, it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil.” While Hill can sometimes wax dangerously didactic, “Lost Ones” wisely focuses its scold on one person, reportedly Wyclef, her former mentor and lover, who lost his capacity for understanding when success and its attendant distractions entered the picture. With its intense sideways-moving reggae beat and super-clipped rap, it often seemed like the chorus would never come, and each time it did a shiver of excitement surged through the arena.

While Hill changed her clothes, DJ Supreme demonstrated some old-school turntable moves that were more gymnastic than musical. The diva returned in a long wool skirt and hooded stadium jacket that matched the school locker stage motif and the schoolgirl mufti being worn by the three female backup singers.

Always the conscientious communicator, Hill brought out her interpreter to explain that the audience would now judge a contest between band and DJ. It was a lame conceit. Hill and the band did pop and reggae covers—”I Want You Back,” “Sir Duke,” Bob Marley’s “War,” etc.—and Supreme, sadly outnumbered, answered with some brief booming-and-scratching freestyles. The audience judged nothing but they liked it. “Everybody’s a winner,” Lauryn observed.

The band made its best showing on “Doo Wop,” especially the rhythm and horn sections, which played off each other in staggered, syncopated bursts that kept the song on a trajectory to the stars. Hill’s modern-soul vocal trappings—the tight ululations on a single word, the ostentatious octave drops—sounded much better than they do on the album. What a difference an arena makes.

She closed the main set with “To Zion,” a song about the birth of her son that’s as intimate as it wants to be. She marched out the poor interpreter again to explain the background of the song, even if almost everybody in the audience surely knew it.

She sang it sitting in a chair; a homely wooden classroom chair, at that. At the end, she stood up as she began feverishly repeating the lines, “My joy! My joy!” that ended the set in the same kind of subdued gospel mood it started with.

Neophyte that she is, Hill wasn’t off the stage ten seconds before she came back for an encore, namely, the tune that made her a star, “Killing Me Softly,” followed by the one certifiably preachy cut on “Miseducation,” “Everything is Everything.” “I wrote these words for everyone,” she sang joyfully, “who struggles in their youth.” The energy that flowed from the stage was met with waves of good will from the audience, who sang along as best they could. She rapped as she left the stage for good, alternating “I love you” with “aishiteru.” It had never occurred to me before that, spoken a certain way, the two phrases rhyme perfectly.

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