Lauryn Hill’s fall from grace after recording a world-dominating solo album in 1998 has been well chronicled. She released one further album in eight years. She fell under the influence of a mysterious spiritual advisor. Her last major solo concert was a 2003 acoustic show at the Vatican, in which she bashed the “corruption, exploitation, and abuses … by the clergy.” And so when she sang last night at the W Hotel on Lexington Avenue – her first performance with a live band in five years, and, as befits such a momentous occasion, it was in a corporate events room and only open to Starwood preferred guest cardholders from American Express – the question on everyone’s mind was which Hill would show up. Genius Lauryn or Crazy Lauryn?
Our money was on Crazy Lauryn.
The party started at 7 p.m., and she took the stage at 9:40, by which time only 120 die-hard fans remained of the initial 300. Her Afro stood sky-high and seemed to have been dyed a shade of burgundy. She wasn’t exactly wearing a Halloween costume, but she was dressed all in black, with a floor-length vintage gown, platform boots, a stiff knee-length wool coat, and a chunky onyx necklace tied together with a big ribbon that stood up like an Elizabethan collar. Her cheeks were painted scarlet, and her eyes and eyebrows were covered in black liquid liner.
And then she ripped through fourteen songs, improvising throughout, speeding them up and slowing them down, throwing in raps, and somehow turning her voice into what sounded like a skipping record. Every song sounded entirely new, including her cover of Bob Marley’s “Hammer” and her encore, the Supremes’ “Heatwave,” which she flowed effortlessly into “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
Hill seemed remarkably in command. What was planned as a half-hour set ran an hour longer; she just kept singing even when event planners turned on the house lights to get her off the stage. She grew more intense as the night wore on, standing at the very front of the stage, staring straight ahead for minutes at a time, singing until her voice was shot, and gesturing wildly behind her for more drums, more drums.
Lauryn Hill didn’t look like a fallen diva last night. She was an intensely shrewd queen, and she knows her crown is there for the taking whenever she’s ready for it.
– Jada Yuan