Lauryn Hill entranced at Wednesday’s back-to-back shows at New York City’s Blue Note and unknowingly silenced doubts about her vocal prowess. With a six-person band alongside her, Ms. Hill took the stage, sitting comfortably on a vintage two-person couch with her acoustic guitar, reminiscent of her legendary MTV Unplugged special recorded in 2001.
“We missed you!” someone from one of the dark corners of the intimate venue screamed. “I missed you too,” she said, then looked down and timidly giggled.
As she strung her guitar, the audience fell silent. “What is freedom but a fleeting notion?/ Is this reality or just emotion?”
She continued to passionately sing, with her soothing, raspy voice, the unreleased “Conformed to Love” while scrunching her nose with every note, “I want to be conformed to love/ Show me what to do/ Show me how to win your love.” Hill performed that song — and the majority of the two-and-a half hour set — with her eyes closed, almost reliving each memory that birthed the poignant lyrics. At times, Hill wailed with anguish, as when performing “I Get Out.”
Most of the songs Ms. Hill performed on Wednesday night — except for her cover of Sade‘s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” — were songs from her 2012 MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album, which, compared to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, reveals an unraveling, ultimately haunted yet resilient Hill.
Considering the palpable affliction that Hill’s discography is drenched with, experimenting with different arrangements is circumspect. Infusing jazz and reggae elements to unreleased and classic songs (“Ex Factor,” “To Zion” or Fugees‘ “Ready or Not”) evoked emotion and dancing simultaneously. Doing so also prevented Hill from nestling too comfortably in nostalgia and opened the minds of those who wouldn’t have minded that.
As the case with D’Angelo, expectations are high for Hill’s sonic return — an artist who was once looked at as one of hip-hop’s saviors. To tango is something both her and fans must learn: Expectations and a longing for nostalgia have the potenital to limit creativity; Hill can only paint outside the lines for so long, or go so far if pressured to stay within. Fans may cling to the past and subsequently demand that the artist expresses that in the present. But true artistry doesn’t hold itself to a prior standard.
Hill’s Blue Note double set showed that she has arrived at a place with enough wiggle room to experiment, but hopefully, she has also recognized that fans want more of the emotional content that made Miseducation an instant classic. The question is, how much longer will they have to wait?