Five reasons you should be freaking out about Lauryn Hill’s Electric Factory show this weekend
This is not an article for the haters. I mean, If you want to find an excuse to complain about Lauryn Hill, it’s out there. The singer, songwriter and onetime Fugee hasn’t released a proper album in 16 years. The record she’s reportedly been making with Phil Nicolo has been scrapped and restarted more times than anybody knows. Her shows are expensive, they don’t start on time, blah blah blah. Know what? I don’t care about any of that narrow-minded groupthink Internet echo chamber nonsense, because Hill is coming to Philly for a headlining show on Saturday night and I’m freaking pumped. You should be too, and here’s why.
1. The Rarity – While many artists might log 90 shows on a single leg of a U.S. tour, Lauryn Hill has played maybe 90 shows in the past 12 years. Just about half of her performances are at festivals in Europe, and about a third of the U.S. dates are at destination festivals a la Bonnaroo which, for many concertgoers, are inaccessible. (She’s treated the greater NYC / Brooklyn area to a generous helping of gigs since her re-emergence in 2009, but she’s from North Jerz so we’ll give her a pass on that.) All this is according to Setlist.fm, which is an inexact resource to be sure – absent in that listing are her recent Philadelphia appearances: at The TLA in 2011, on the Parkway in 2012 as a surprise guest during The Roots’ Welcome America set, and opening for Nas at the Electric Factory in November of 2012.
But still, it’s not like this concert is a “catch her next time” type event a la Jay-Z or Justin Timberlake’s endless circuit of show after show after show. We don’t know when the next time will be, or if there’s even going to be a next time. Granted, she still doesn’t have a new album to promote. But in an age of performers that turn touring into an endless grind, taking a road warrior approach and spending 10 months out of the year circling the globe, it’s admirable to see Lauryn Hill be so remarkably decisive – she plays where she wants, when she wants, and how she wants, and she doesn’t phone it in.
2. The Energy – Okay, so let’s reflect on that show with The Roots for a second. Holy SMOKES. Nobody saw it coming, it was only a half hour long, and it was freaking fierce. With ?uestlove bringing the tempo up to near-doubletime at points, Hill rocked through a half dozen hits from across her catalog and the band jammed them out to reach unbelievable highs. It was ridiculously hot that Independence Day, if you recall. The people seeing Hill in person on the Parkway were sweating their faces off; the people at home watching on television could still feel the heat. Check out this particularly smokin’ double-shot of songs from Hill’s Fugees days performed on the Parkway, “Ready or Not” followed by “Fu-Gee-La.” If the Electric Factory show has half of this energy, it’s going to be unreal.
3. The Songs – Hands down, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of the top five albums of the 90s. You’re free to disagree, but you would be wrong. It’s a brilliant fusion of the deep dancehall vibes of The Fugees’ best work with the nascent neo-soul genre, a flickering of unflinching rap and a beautiful pop sheen. It also arrived at a time when pop music was becoming increasingly dumbed down and surface, but went uncommercially deep, exploring affection, heartache and myriad surrounding emotions from a variety of angles, framing it around the feel-good sketches of school students pondering “what is love?” That gets spun as love for community on “Every Ghetto, Every City,” love for family on “To Zion,” love for music on “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and bitterly faded love for ex-flames on “Lost Ones.” Sixteen years later, “Ex Factor” still aches in the best way – “I keep letting you back in, how can I explain myself? / As painful as this thing has been, I just can’t be with no one else.” Ahhh.
Beyond Miseducation, Hill has plenty of music in her catalog that could potentially bring down the house. I could point to her work with The Fugees, two songs of which we know from that Fourth of July show are still knockouts live. And of course the big hit – not her song, but still – that cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” which, from some Setlist.fm peeking, appears to either open her shows or be played very close to the top. And you know what? Even MTV Unplugged 2.0, the double album of Hill in acoustic folk mode with lengthy religion-oriented rambling monologues that nobody had any patience for, has more than a few moments of brilliance. “Just Like Water” is a total gem, and if it makes its way into the setlist on Saturday, I would be thrilled.
4. The Voice – Lauryn Hill’s singing on a bad day is better than just about else on their best day. On that Unplugged performance, for instance, she had a cold; her voice cracked and wheezed its way around melodies, and yet it still managed to sound utterly chilling and captivating. And when she’s on, she’s so on, belting out notes with conviction, commanding the energy of the room, riffing on vocal melodies in classic R&B form but always hitting the sweet spot.
5. The Unpredictability – You never know what you’re going to get from Lauryn Hill, or when you’re going to get it, and that’s exactly what makes her a compelling artist. She might not take the stage till 1:30, or she might hit it at 10 and rock it till midnight. She may never release a proper follow-up to Miseducation, or it might be right around the corner. Who knows. Part of loving Lauryn Hill is embracing that unknown and going along for the ride – as she has shown at various points over the years, the payoff makes it worthwhile.
Lauryn Hill headlines The Electric Factory with Talib Kweli on Saturday, November 15th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.