In Praise of the Ever-Evolving Lauryn Hill

“She is having so much fun onstage” was the surprised thought that ran through my mind as Lauryn Hill kicked off her Ms. Lauryn Hill & Fugees: “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” 25th Anniversary Tour at the Prudential Center in downtown Newark on Tuesday night.

Having grown up in nearby South Orange, N.J., her joy was partly because she was at home, and partly because we were all there to celebrate that almost a quarter of a century ago, she made history with her 10-times-platinum multigenre album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Its 10 Grammy nominations yielded five wins, which was a record for a female artist, and “Miseducation” became the first hip-hop LP to take home album of the year.

Perhaps Hill was also amped by the high stakes of the performance. Earlier this year, her Fugees group mate Pras was found guilty for an illegal foreign influence scheme, leading some to predict that this full reconciliation of Pras, Hill and Wyclef Jean would be their final tour as a trio.

Or maybe, I was projecting glee back onto her since this was the first of her concerts at which I’ve felt fully at ease since attending her initial solo tour back in 1999. Every time since — including when I bought tickets to her performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2009, only for her entire European tour abruptly canceled — I’ve been disappointed by her inconsistency.

Most of those shows came after Hill settled a suit with four musicians, known collectively as New Ark, who said she hadn’t properly credited them for their contributions to the sound and success of “Miseducation.” With the exception of the taping and release of “MTV Unplugged” in 2001, she had gone into a self-exile. “I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine,” she later told Essence magazine, “I was being way too compromised.”

From left: Wyclef Jean, Hill and Pras of the Fugees. The group’s set featured guest stars and beloved songs.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

When she returned to the stage a few years later, she had so radically rearranged the songs from the beloved “Miseducation,” they were often unrecognizable.

The revisions stung fans hard because the music had spoken so directly to so many — including me. “Miseducation” was released on my 23rd birthday on Aug. 25, 1998, and because of that simple calendar fact, I thought the album was all mine. Back then, I was in transition — between a relationship with my college boyfriend and the young man who would become my life partner. I was obsessed with her B-side cuts “When It Hurts So Bad” and “I Used to Love Him” with Mary J. Blige, since these breakup songs captured my range of emotions: “What you need ironically/Will turn out what you want to be” became my mantra as I moved from heartache to hopefulness.

The album was so tied up with a younger version of myself that I understood it only through nostalgia, failing to appreciate who Hill was becoming in the present. A more mature way of experiencing her live was to let go of my expectations and recognize that she was innovating, recreating and disproving past accusations of unoriginality. “There’s no way I could continue to play the same songs over and over as long as I’ve been performing them without some variation and exploration,” she wrote in 2018. “I’m not a robot. If I’d had additional music out, perhaps I would have kept them as they were.”

In Newark this week, as Hill appeared onstage in a bright red ruffled corseted gilet, bedazzled sunglasses and a jeweled kufi, she entranced the crowd, reminding us that she was one of our generation’s definitive preachers and now prodigal daughters. She opened each song in its familiar arrangement, and then quickly switched up its tempo, genre or melody.

The soulful “Final Hour” was remixed with the beat of “Money, Power & Respect,” the Lox’s collaboration with DMX and Lil’ Kim; the marching band from Hill’s alma mater Columbia High School joined her live band onstage for “Doo Wop (That Thing)”; Latin jazz beats were interspersed throughout the tender “To Zion,” a song for her oldest son that was not merely a tribute, but a complete triumph.

The music was set to a backdrop of images that featured quotes from Frantz Fanon and Marcus Garvey, Hill’s personal home videos, and a montage of Black artists and activists including Josephine Baker and Angela Davis. My favorites showed Hill over time, which seemed in direct conversation with the beautiful black-and-white photographs of the musician looking into a mirror from the liner notes of “Miseducation” itself.

For those unaccustomed to Hill’s latest style, her musical digressions often sound dissonant. In a way, they are right. The remixes can be disinviting, and many fans near me in the crowd found it hard to keep up with her changes. Whereas Taylor Swift’s note-for-note versions of her old albums are celebrated, I am increasingly intrigued by Hill’s appetite for revolutionizing her older material.

Hearing these songs rearranged not only forced me to pay closer attention to her powerfully packed lyrics and melodic rhyme flow, but also reactivated my sense of curiosity, anticipation and admiration for her.

Hill is known for rearranging the songs from “Miseducation” onstage.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

In a genre like hip-hop, where remixing, sampling and turning older music into the new is a core artistic principle and central practice, Hill’s experimentation is not that surprising. But as a female rapper, she has often been held to a double standard and has had to play by different rules. Onstage, she isn’t merely entertaining us; she’s showing us what it means to have to reclaim this album as fully hers, while pushing her artistry into the future.

It is a big ask from an artist with only one full album. And it’s a meaningful challenge to the very notion of the “great” album, which has a timelessness that is as dependent on its spirit of innovation and production value as well as our personal connections to it — how much we loved it, and the vision of ourselves that it projected back onto us when we heard it for the first time. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, is it possible to both champion Hill’s groundbreaking contributions to the genre while also allowing the album itself to grow up as much as we have?

An answer of sorts came during another part of the show. When Pras and Wyclef finally joined Hill for the second set, their reunion relied on our familiarity with the Fugees’ catalog — “Vocab,” “Zealots,” “The Mask” — and at one point, there were more than eight people onstage with mics, including guests such as John Forte, Outsidaz and Remy Ma, for a roaring rendition of “Cowboys.” It was a joy to see the three intact and their playful competitiveness and musical chemistry restored. While being flanked by so many of her male peers, Hill still commanded the space as she always did, proving her mettle as one of our greatest M.C.s.

But as the Fugees set wore on, I began to long for the “Miseducation” one. Suddenly, I wanted to linger in the unpredictability of Hill’s arrangements, her constant improvising, her seamless movement between singing and rapping.

By finally accepting Hill’s ability to change, I realized that I had misread so much before. Here was an artist — once again, and on tour — rewriting the rules of hip-hop, and American popular music at large. She was not just teaching us how to hear “Miseducation” differently, but showing us what it looks like for a musician to truly evolve and redefine what we call a classic as something brand-new.

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