Pop & Hiss

Grammys 2016: What really happened with Lauryn Hill?

Among the surprising number of onstage snags at the 58th Grammy Awards, one of the most mysterious was the no-show of a very special guest who almost no one knew about ahead of Monday’s show.

After the Weeknd’s performance — a medley of his song-of-summer smash “Can’t Feel My Face” and his slinky, Michael Jackson-esque ballad “In the Night” — Twitter buzzed over the omission of Lauryn Hill, who was supposed to join the singer for “In the Night.”

An appearance from such a pivotal hip-hop and R&B performer would have stood as the night’s best-kept secret and a major coup for the show — if  it had come together.

Grammys 2016: Full coverage | Surprises, snubs and memorable moments | Red carpet | Show highlights | Nominees and winners

So what happened? Depends on whom you ask.

A representative for the notoriously reclusive Hill released a lengthy, strongly worded statement shortly after the performance that noted that the singer pulled out because of “its last-minute nature” and pointed toward advance word of her appearance by the Grammys.

“The Grammys announced a performance by Ms. Lauryn Hill prematurely and without approval. Ms. Hill had concerts all weekend, leaving no time to prepare, and was uncertain she would even be able to make it to L.A. in time to rehearse for the event,” the statement read.

“Any performance that could have happened was never confirmed, and should not have been advertised as such. Ms. Hill was invited to do a collaboration with an artist she appreciates. The performance was intended to be a surprise and unfortunately due to its last-minute nature, was unable to come to fruition.”

The Grammys, however, had a different story.

Backstage in the press room Monday, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow spoke about the night's many snags.

When asked about Hill’s absence, Portnow’s comments conflicted with the official word from her camp.

"We had rehearsals off-site that she didn't attend, but we had a dress rehearsal onstage that she did attend,” Portnow told reporters. “When it came to showtime, we were told she was late, three minutes to seven minutes out, but she didn't make it.”

Hill has had a spotty track record with performing since she stepped out of the spotlight after her debut, 1999’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” It  made Grammys history as the first hip-hop record to be awarded album of the year but remains her only solo studio effort.

Although Hill hasn’t been entirely dormant since that wildly successful  album — her 2002 live “Unplugged” album is still a deeply polarizing topic among critics and fans — her uneven live showings have gained her a reputation as a difficult and undependable artist.

Despite shining appearances over the years at festivals such as Coachella and the BET Experience, Hill has been unable to shake a reputation as a loose cannon, largely because  good performances have been  overshadowed by tales of fans waiting hours for her to show up at gigs.

An appearance at the Grammys probably wouldn’t have changed that image, but it would have been one of the most high-profile appearances by Hill in recent memory that could have reignited excitement for a long-awaited comeback album.

Her team's decision to release what read like a defensive statement is all the more confounding. "None of that statement is accurate," Portnow said  backstage.

The first that people heard of her performance wasn’t from an announcement by the Recording Academy (it never publicized her planned appearance) but from a Twitter user, who posted an image of the Weeknd and what appeared to be a covered-up Hill rehearsing the song.

Numerous industry sources who were there have all confirmed that the singer showed up at dress rehearsal.

"Our intention was, and we were ready, right up to the moment of the performance, for her to step up onstage,” Portnow added. “She didn't get into the building on time. If I have to be someplace on time, I figure out how to do that.

"It's unfortunate, but a great credit to the Weeknd,” Portnow continued. “He killed it."

 gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy

Times staff writer August Brown contributed to this report. 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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