Similar to Kanye West, “I was uninspired since Lauryn Hill retired” – admittedly never from a perspective that berated the ‘bonafide’ empress of 90’s Rap and Soul for not releasing new music since 2010’s “Back To 6”. Rather, as a life-long fan born in 1996, whom has often referred to Ms. Hill’s five-time Grammy-winning debut solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” whilst growing up, for guidance and endless inspiration when dealing with the turbulence of young-love and burgeoning womanhood – I constantly felt as if I had surely missed out on the chance to see this quintessential record performed live in its entirety.
In 1998, whilst pregnant with her first son Zion, Ms. Hill recorded The Miseducation at the prolific Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, creating a historic record centered around deconstructing the multi-faceted meanings of the word love. Amalgamating the diasporic music of soul and hip-hop imparted upon her by her parents whilst growing up in New Jersey, whilst simultaneously interpolating the dynamic rap sensibilities learned during her time with her high-school–formed band The Fugees; innovating a refreshingly ubiquitous genre of music commonly referred to in the contemporary music sphere as neo-soul.
It’s hard to put into words the shock and excitement one felt when hearing that Ms. Hill would be embarking upon a two-year-long, 21st Anniversary Tour of the landmark record; first traveling across North America and then arriving in Europe in 2019. Better yet, when I learned that resident event organizer’s at Oxfordshire’s famed Blenheim Palace were orchestrating a night that moved to champion those women of colour – particularly within Britain – who have been inspired by Ms. Hills’ presence in music, using her supreme guidance in continuing the neo-soul genre, taking it from the 90’s into the future; in doing so, renewing it for a contemporary audience. Namely, on the glittering supporting bill are Birmingham’s Mahalia, and “Sing To The Moon” hit-maker Laura Mvula.
Expecting an evening that was not to be missed, regardless of the all-too-common condescending and dissuading cyber-space ramblings about the tour not living up to fans’ tireless expectations of the “Superstar” hitmaker so far (often solely predicated on Ms. Hill’s loose approach to scheduling) – I was adamant that the regret I would assuredly feel having not seized the chance to see the legend live and in such a beautiful and inclusive setting, would have been much greater than any disappointment associated with scheduling; after all I’d been waiting my whole life, what difference would an extra hour really make?
The atmospherically festival-esque extravaganza was largely arranged in the palace courtyard; Mahalia and Mvula play through the late afternoon, performing passionate excerpted renditions of songs from their extensive discographies respectively; both taking sentimental moments towards the end of their shows, to thank Ms.Hill for allowing them to share her renowned stage. Its June 21st, and as the dusky orange sunset bathes the ever-growing and excitable crowd, prior to Ms. Hill’s performance DJ Reborn turns-up the energy with an hour-long set packed-full of dancehall, reggae, dub and hip-hop bangers from, Buju Banton, Biggie, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg and Koffee – just to mention a few. Thus, a euphoric aura is set just in time for Ms. Hill’s arrival.
Within moments of the last glimmers of orange dusk touching the horizon on the night of the summer solstice, and just as the climactic anticipation to see the main act has become so overwhelmingly tense it could be cut with a knife, DJ Reborn finishes her set introducing Ms. Lauryn Hill to the sound of triumphant applause that echoes throughout the venue. The empress walks coolly and confidently onto the stage beckoning the twilight, her right hand lifted, greeting her audience and her band to the “Intro”; as fragmented film-like visuals of Ms. Hill entering the school building all those years ago play on the gigantic monitor behind her. Dressed to the nines in Oxford attire, her outfit consists of a glorious polka-dot gown with mesh sleeves and a sleek, ascot-inspired lace hat, paired with blacked-out shades and glistening dangling diamond earrings – completed with that trademark bold red-lip! It’s a perfect moment and taking it all in feels utterly priceless.
The crowd continues to jubilantly scream, as the band play the gentle melody of “Intro” in a loop, and Ms. Hill introduces them, the record and the tour, exclaiming in gratitude, “we’ve been touring this record and perfecting our live performance for a year-and-a-half”, continuing playfully “the area is Oxfordshire, let me get that right before we start” and finishing proudly “this is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill…let’s go!” – and as the infectious guiding drumbeat of “Lost Ones” rings out, the audience is almost instantly entranced in Ms.Hill’s un-matched rap prowess.
It’s a dynamic jazz re-arrangement of the original track, which catches the audience off-guard at first – indicated by their slightly dis-jointed call-and-repeat of the songstresses enigmatic words in the first verse –“Everything you did has already been done, I know all the tricks from bricks to (Oxford)”. However, by the chorus Ms. Hill, her fantastic backup choir and animated audience are on the same page; chanting the tracks unforgettable hook, “You might win some, but you just lost one!”, in flawless unison; a bond which grows stronger as the night ensues.
Ms. Hill continues this charismatic and intriguing re-imagination of tracks from the classic album, predominantly with jazz instrumentation, as she saunters through “Everything Is Everything” “Superstar” and “Final Hour”, characteristically letting the new arrangements evolve into dissonant blues-inspired scatting sections, melodically carried by her background vocalists’ buttery harmonies, as each iconic record seamlessly blends into the next. “Forgive Them Father, – the albums’ widely loved meditation on dealing with “backstabbers” with “forgiveness” – comes in the form of a stunning root’s reggae arrangement embellished with gorgeous trills from her talented trumpeter- to which Ms. Hill passionately raps a lesson in reciprocation and treating other’s how one wishes to be treated; naturally, with love and respect.
Ms. Hill takes another moment between “Forgive Them Father” and introducing fan-favorite “Ex-Factor”, to provide increasing context on the personal sentimentality of the 21st Anniversary Tour, as the band plays a free-jazz improvisation of the latter track alongside Ms. Hill’s spoken-word. Exuding an aura of omniscience, Ms. Hill exclaims “I grew up with a fascination for the soul and hip-hop music that I had been exposed to by my parents”, adding humor to her story in further stating “this was before playlists” to which the crowd collectively chuckles along as Ms. Hill concisely and comedically refers to the recent over-saturated sampling of the ensuing track within the contemporary hip-hop sphere.
“Hill is doing her songs as she sees fit, even if her emancipation doesn’t fit our equation!” – The Guardian (2018)
Ms. Hill continues, “I wanted to create music that resonated with me, and when it was my turn to create something (referring to her departure from The Fugees in 1997), I wanted to make an album that epitomized both these sounds with love as the focus.” She goes on to nostalgically recount, “I was 21-years-old and writing songs like “Ex-Factor”, and to this day I don’t think anybody believed me when I tried to explain how deeply and intensely I meant it when I said that I loved.” Concluding by admitting, “I’m still in search of that love, and let me tell you, folks, that reciprocity is huge – accepting self, being one’s authentic self and requiring accountability from the people who claim they love you is so important, so let’s talk about it…”.
Visibly, the impression of such a vulnerable statement is not lost on the audience, as Ms. Hill smoothly segues into the groundbreaking “Ex-Factor” – her incredible vocal accompanied by a twinkling piano melody. On which, she doesn’t fail to re-conceptualize the infectious hook into a bluesy gospel coda section, as the choir repeats “Care for me, care for me/ I know you care for me/There for me, there for me/Said you’d be there for me/Cry for me, cry for me/You said you’d die for me/Give to me, give to me/Why won’t you live for me?”; Ms. Hill dances and claps along, scatting and losing herself in the beat and overwhelming percussive arrangement. Overarchingly, the live performance of this track is a clear celebration of its intrinsic musical accomplishment, and wider appreciation by fans and musicians alike in the years preceding its groundbreaking release.
As we approach the culmination of the show, Ms. Hill and the band jive through respective bluesy renditions of “Can’t Keep My Eyes Off Of You”, and the heavenly “To Zion” – which is performed with a dazzling symphonic string instrumentation, which moves to bolster the songs’ magnificent plucked guitar melody – as Ms. Hill’s deep tonality in the verses works in juxtaposition with the exultant rejoiceful manner with which she sings the chorus; lyrically reminiscing on her own plight towards motherhood all-those years ago singing, “Now the joy of my world is in Zion”. This track takes on a whole new meaning as she informs the crowd that her son (and the child with whom she was pregnant with whilst recording The Miseducation) Zion himself, has just recently become a father, making it impossible not to share in the joy Ms. Hill feels when performing this song above others; it’s uplifting, heart-warming and comes with a sublimely happy-ending.
However, there is no other time throughout her set when Ms. Hill commands the stage with such fervor as when performing “Doo Wop/That Thing” – hence, she strategically saves the most familiar track until the end, and as the audience becomes hysterical one final time in response to the trilling piano, funky bass and trumpet fanfare that has assuredly captivated them enough to change their life at some point, the electric energy in the palace courtyard is undeniable. To highlight the sonic occasion, Ms. Hill engages with the audience, crouching as she raps aggressively and directly at them, confidently stomping around the stage in her stiletto’s and giving even Naomi Campbell a run for her money as she swings her frock to the side, stepping onto an amp at the front of the stage to perform the second verse whilst gesticulating at the audience to get involved in the final enigmatic rap verses and ingrained chorus.
As the final track plays out, Ms. Hill takes a moment to thank her band, before humbly bowing to the audience in a gesture of thanks, waving and abruptly exiting the stage. She walks with conviction, like a woman who knows she’s responsible for producing one of the greatest albums of all time! There’s still a fire beneath this incredible artist that is unmatched by any female rapper or soul-songstress that ever lived. Furthermore, the way in which she re-conceptualizes her own music for the purpose of live performance is awe-inspiring, all whilst constructing a mature version of The Miseducation that is renewed in its musicality, whilst never losing the essence of each Grammy-Award-winning track. A seasoned performer with insurmountable energy, when watching Ms. Hill perform one becomes ever-aware that they are consuming a piece of history. Moreover, that what one is experiencing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the legend do it again; an experience I wouldn’t urge anyone to miss out on!