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Review

Lauryn Hill worth the wait at Club Nokia

Disc JockeysCoachella Valley Music and Arts FestivalNas
Lauryn Hill's Club Nokia show Saturday is a reminder that few can match her creativity, ferocity.
The former Fugees performer treats that band's catalog with imagination and vigor.

When it comes to Lauryn Hill, expect to wait. 

Fans of the acclaimed neo-soul singer are still holding out for a proper studio follow-up to the 1998 Grammy-dominating LP “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” In a 2012 note on her Tumblr, she said she had been living “underground” for years to avoid “being manipulated and controlled by a media protected military industrial complex with a completely different agenda.” A well-received comeback stint that included a 2011 Coachella festival set was thrown askew when she went to prison last year on three counts of tax evasion.

And yes, her sold-out Saturday night set at Club Nokia in L.A. ran about an hour and 15 minutes behind schedule (with a few tense moments when the crowd looked as if it might turn on her increasingly panicky warm-up DJ). 

But like most things with Hill and tardiness, all was forgiven once she actually took the stage. There still are few working singers who can match Hill’s range of creativity, ferocity and tenderness. 

L.A. last saw Hill this year at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where she had a cameo with former tour-mate Nas during his lauded “Illmatic” 20th anniversary set. A trickle of incendiary new songs, including the capitalism-blasting single “Consumerism” and “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix),” implied that a new Lauryn Hill record -- possibly called “Letters From Exile” -- might see daylight.

Saturday’s set proved that Hill is still a thicket of contradictions, though. She’s in total command of her voice but laughs off the idea of a schedule. If you favor professionalism over raw feeling, go elsewhere. Hill wants to open veins.

As she took the stage in a severe all-black getup with close-cropped hair, you could feel echoes of Nina Simone’s pull between radical politics, the pain of outsider-dom in America and an ability to hit a sometimes transcendent beauty in song. 

Sixteen years after their release, “Everything Is Everything”  and “Final Hour” still felt like promises of the musical future fulfilled. Crackling Harlem soul and hypnotic reggae and laser-cut vocal runs intertwined into something forever new. (Hill’s trio of backing vocalists were extraordinary complements to her lead lines, and riveting performers in their own right.)

“Lost Ones” made hairpin tempo turns between riled-up rapping and girl-group sweetness that put today’s mix of half-sung, half-rapped lollygagging on Top 40 to shame. 

The only place her set dragged (well, aside from that initial wait) was an acoustic interlude that suffered from its own delays in getting started. A DJ took over while her crew scrambled to set up the stage, causing a few fans to wonder if the show was over. A too long, too folksy singer-songwriter break, one reminiscent of her divisive “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0” acoustic live record, wasn’t the most rousing move in response.

But the show was far from over. Hill had a famously acrimonious split from the Fugees, but once her band returned, she treated their catalog of “feel-good music” like “Zealots,” “Fu-Gee-La” and “How Many Mics” with imagination and vigor. Hill has had most of her six children with the Marley family scion Rohan Marley, and her cover of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” showed that she’s a careful but unorthodox student of reggae, who hears its lonely but hopeful reverberations in American soul. 

By the time she finished “Doo Wop (That Thing),” it was nearly 1:30 a.m. Some punch-drunk fans had been standing at Club Nokia since before 9 p.m. in hopes of hearing it. But after all that, Hill’s radiant take on her marquee single left them in the unexpected position of wanting more.

How long they’ll have to wait is up to Hill.  

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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