A few weeks ago, I went to see the best Lauryn Hill show I've ever witnessed. It was the third time I'd seen her live in the space of eight years, this time at the O2 Academy in Brixton. It was packed to the brim – the pre-show queue went around three corners of the building; exasperating but impressive. She was over an hour late, and I’m no lover of waiting, but once on stage, I immediately forgave the tardiness. Her voice was better than I've ever heard it live, and her rapping was breathtaking. She rivals Eminem in terms of speed and diction, sounding just as good live as she does recorded, a feat for any rapper.
Looking around, however, it was clear that the majority of the crowd felt otherwise. They’d already started booing the DJ when his set ran in to the planned start of the concert (a quality I quite like in London crowds, how quickly and fervently they're ready to voice their distaste). But more importantly, from the start of the show, Lauryn Hill was playing remixed versions of most of her songs – turning a ballad into a fast-paced song, singing a rap verse, adding a heavy reggae twist to a hip hop track. But she always does this. And it's one of the best aspects of her gigs. You (annoyingly) hear versions of tracks you know inside out that you'll never hear in that incarnation again. She conducts everyone on stage with such precision during this chopping and changing, as if channeling James Brown; it's exhilarating to watch. You feel like you're at an actual show.
Ever since I heard the intro to Ready Or Not, I've been hooked on Lauryn Hill. I remember being a tiny bit scared of, but more importantly fascinated by the song and video. I was 10, far too young to properly understand most of the lyrics (why would she need to make someone want her, once she's already found them?), but we had just recently moved to Berlin and both my parents worked full-time, so MTV became my after-school care. Alongside an inexplicable crush on Brian Littrell and an immediate fixation with Geri Halliwell, my unsupervised TV sessions introduced me to hip hop.
I convinced someone to buy me The Score, and soon knew all the lyrics off by heart, rinsing the album front to back, learning words that I would only understand in years to come, but singing and rapping along with the bravado of maturity. Two years later, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill came out, changing my musical life forever. I would sit at my TV, hoping and hoping that they would play Doo-Wop again (a gleeful desperation and delayed gratification that a post-YouTube generation will never get to experience). I thought Lauryn was so beautiful, and her voice unlike any I'd heard before. And also, the woman could rap. By 1998 I had already watched enough parental advisory videos to know that this lady was good, real good, and was doing something I had never seen another woman do before. Her voice and lyrics could make me feel things I'd never felt before. Broken heart? Never had one. Bearing a child? I was still one myself. But suddenly I could sense a glimpse of what these big, grown-up emotions might feel like.
Back to Brixton, though. The start of the night had been so promising: fans singing along to the Fugees, Bob Marley and Lauryn Hill tracks the DJ was playing with such glee, I thought, "Yeah, they get it, this is going to be great". When the majority of the crowd went quiet while she was rapping her tongue off, however, or when they started booing her as she left the stage (for what was so obviously a set change), I realised that I'd overestimated the die-hardness of the crowd. It didn't detract from the show – Fu-Gee-La was changed so fantastically that I’m annoyed to this day that I didn't record it, and I boo-hoo'ed my way through Ex-Factor and To Zion because her voice was so damn beautiful – but the evening was soured by knowing, almost word for word, what the papers were going to write about the gig the next day, so easily swayed by general cynicism. The Guardian gave her three stars, the Independent two, and the Telegraph one, none of them failing to include her tax evasion, loud whispers of the often abused “diva” stamp, and even presumed mental instability. Lazy review fillers. I felt bad that my city was giving such a good show a bad rep.
I didn't actually see Lauryn Hill live until 10 years after I first heard her voice. I bought tickets for the Hammersmith Apollo show, and barely moved a muscle throughout the whole night. I was so transfixed that my fellow concert-goer asked whether I even enjoyed myself. The show wasn’t what I expected, yes – she wore a gigantic wig that kept slipping off and was visibly distracted by it, and her voice was so raspy that she couldn't hit many of the high notes that make up the best parts of some of her songs, but I was happy just to see her, in the flesh, performing the songs I knew so well. For a non-fan, though, the show would've been pretty poor. Her voice was no where near as good as it had been, and her mannerisms were tense as well.
The next time I saw her was five years later, at the indigo2. We managed to stand at the very front of the stage, and there was a palpable difference in the crowd; they were up for it. I knew this was going to be a great gig. And I was right – her voice was nearly back to brilliance, you could tell she was having a good time, I was surrounded by people who knew the words as well as I did, and she included a whole lot of songs from her Unplugged album. Watching her rap at the speed that she does, from a distance where I could clearly see her facial expressions, was mind-boggling.
And this last show, for me and the three others sat alongside me, was even better. She was rapping double-time, not letting the crowd deter her but rather using it a fuel to go harder. Being in Brixton, in the derelict but charming venue, felt apt: everything was old-school, in the best way possible. Of course she is aware of the negative tags stapled to her, how could she not be, but so was the crowd, which added to the permissibility to boo. If she were to play all of her songs the way they appear on the record, more the 15 years after the release of her last studio album, surely she would become as bored of them as we would. If you've come to sing some karaoke, you're in the wrong place. But if you want to watch a show, there's no one quite like Ms. Hill to deliver.