Lauryn Hill appeared onstage wearing a sheer black veil draped over her face. She kicked off her set with unrecognizable versions of songs that once defined her career, burying her trademark gruff raps and tender harmonies in the complex arrangements of a 12-plus-piece band.
It was as if Hill, once one of the most celebrated figures in hip-hop, was actively working to escape her former self — or at least dodge our perception of who she once was.
For those of us who came up loving ‘90s rap and neo soul, Hill was the one who broke the mold, changed the game, killed it with brilliance and authenticity.
The former Fugee elevated the male-dominated art form to levels still unattainable by most, including modern-day Lauryn. Her 1998 solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” was a breakup album so powerful that it’s still considered one of the best hip-hop records ever recorded.
But Hill bowed out at the height of her fame and became known as an eccentric, difficult-to-work-with artist who showed up only when it felt right. When she made headlines in 2013, it wasn’t for music. Hill was arrested for failing to pay nearly a million in back taxes and ended up serving part of a three-month sentence in a Connecticut jail.
Now 40, Hill has yet to make a bona-fide follow-up album, though a generation that came of age humming “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” still holds out hope — and many of them were at the Greek Theatre on Monday night.
Once again, Hill left her audience waiting, taking the stage at 9:30 p.m., more than an hour after her originally scheduled time. A DJ helped fill in the gap between her and opener Daniel Bambaata Marley with a feed of ‘90s-era rap hits and shout-outs: “If you owned ‘Miseducation,’ make some noise!” “If you’re a Fugees fan, make noise!” “Anyone from Jersey?!!”
He got the capacity crowd on its feet, only for Hill to come out and take a seat, ignoring the energy in favor of a comfortable bench center stage. Dressed in an unseasonably warm long-sleeve turtleneck and a heavy pleated, floor-length skirt, she came armed with an acoustic guitar and the fussy perfectionist bent of a great artist.
Hill spent much of the first number, and then the entire set, asking the sound man to turn her monitor up then down, or telling the band to pick up the pace then slow it down. Hill was, of course, forever in search of that elusive sweet spot.
She went on to deconstruct and reassemble Fugees tunes and her own solo numbers into a confusing two-hour-plus set of bumpy Frankensteined hits, long-winded band jams and momentum-busting stops and starts. Classics such as “Ex-Factor” were smothered inside a frenetic arrangement that found Hill rapping verses at warp speed, then drawing out other parts of the song in exhausting, repetitive looped grooves.
Her voice rarely had a chance to shine. Hill seemed determined to rush her rapped bits, as if she needed to get them out of the way so the band could kick in. “The Mystery of Iniquity” was so fragmented within a jazzy, funky, rock jam that few realized Hill was singing a song they likely knew by heart.
The savior of the evening was special guest Nas. Clad in a suit and tie, the New York rapper and former collaborator of Hill performed “If I Ruled the World” with her, and for the only time onstage Monday she rapped with a purpose and intensity. She also sang “Happy Birthday” to him a cappella, one of her most stripped-down and wonderful vocal moments of the evening.
Hill then ceded the stage to Nas, who charmed with clear, concise and spontaneous takes on his own “N.Y. State of Mind” and “The World Is Yours.” His energy and focus were in sharp contrast to Hill’s defiantly scattered approach, and made it painfully clear how much the crowd had been struggling to connect with her.
Once Hill returned, her aggressive revamping of songs didn’t affect material she covered by other artists such as Bob Marley and Nina Simone, along with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” because, as she said, “We’re in California.”
Unfortunately, Hill had already lost the crowd, which was trickling out before her closing number, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” It was one of the few moments she left a beloved chorus intact for a sing-along.
As Talib Kweli once said to those who criticized the latter-day Hill, Lauryn doesn’t owe us anything. He’s right. She essentially bled for us on her album years ago, and she’s been trying to recover ever since. Playing these numbers night after night can’t be easy on the soul. But denying one’s own legacy appears just as damaging.