Why Nas opened for Lauryn Hill is a mystery. He’s touring on impressive 2012 LP, Life is Good, a record that will undoubtedly make many “best of” lists later this year, while Hill has no significant new work to speak of since genius breakout, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Fans (this writer included) attended with hopes of at least a taste of the era when the empowered, eloquent ex Fugees front-woman went the solo route, inspiring throngs of devoted listeners by espousing themes of unity and equality with those killer pipes of hers.
But after waiting more than hour after Nas’ explosive performance—“technical issues” were cited, but “diva issues” seem more likely—the crowd grew visibly weary. Folks in the balcony napped and others booed and hissed until the cumulative volume reached a near riot.
After she finally took the stage around 11:30pm, Hill’s agitated demeanor and distracted delivery was not only disappointing but also confusing. One minute she played angry bandleader, flailing hand signals at the rhythm section while adjusting her ear monitor. The next she stood front and center, acting as an ineffective MC, delivering almost indecipherable gospel- and reggae-inflected renditions of “Forgive Them Father,” “Everything is Everything,” and “Killing Me Softly,” via a sort a sort of chirping that fell somewhere between spoken word and scat. “Sing Ms. Lauryn! Sing!” the woman next to me cried in agony as others began to trickle out of the packed house. The introduction of a new song, “Black Rage,” was, in a word, awkward. After speeding through the politically charged cut, which acts as an angry take on sugary standard “My Favorite Things,” Hill reiterated its frustration on a spoken-word soapbox, uttering the song’s lyrics with the tone and cadence of an annoyed grade-school teacher. It’s sad to see a beloved artist in decline, and this erratic appearance did nothing to soften the blow for fans still reveling in what increasingly appears to be her creative peak in the late ’90s.
Were it not for Nas, who not only entertained but also spoke candidly about the struggles of being a father and of the senseless violence overtaking our cities, particularly in Chicago, the night would have been a disaster. Though both cut their teeth in the ’90s, Nas has clearly matured and learned something of love, loss and reconciliation along the road, while Hill seems to regress further and further inside of herself.