Concert Review: Lauryn Hill at the Aragon Ballroom

“So how long you wanna bet it’s gonna take her to come out? Three hours?” Julie, a 24 year-old concert lover, asks her friend. They laugh.

Lauryn Hill, the infamous ex-Fugee, multi-platinum solo-artist, singer/rapper has been having a tough time showing up to her comeback tour.

According to Perez Hilton, Lauryn Hill arrived 3 hours late to her shows in Atlanta and Brooklyn earlier this year. Sure, we’ve all been late to a thing or two. But it’s pretty ballsy of Lauryn to make it a habit (especially on her comeback tour).

Lauryn hasn’t recorded a new album since her five-time-Grammy award-winningMiseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998. Her newest material is now 10 years old, an acoustic set recorded for MTV Unplugged in 2001.  Though she reunited with The Fugees in fall of ‘04 to play “Killing Me Softly” for Dave Chapelle’s Block Party, we haven’t truly heard from Lauryn in 12 years.

Despite reports of chronic tardiness, Chicago fans flock to the Aragon Ballroom for the honor of witnessing this multi-platinum artist’s long-overdue comeback. Looking at the crowd, the energy is infectious. People are jittery and excited; fans prepare themselves to be stunned. After all, Lauryn’s first tour since 1999 is bound to be nothing short of astonishing.

Hill made it a point to be punctual this time but her performance left bleeding-heart fans nothing short of devastated.

First off, the tickets list the bill as Lauryn and Lauryn only. So when Mos Def comes on stage, the crowd is half-thrilled and half-disappointed. Mos Def (the rapper-gone-actor known for singles like “Close Edge” and movies like The Italian Job) is one hell of a star-studded surprise. Hip-hop heads are delighted to see him play the unexpected opening set, but after 7 songs their interest fades. When will the person they paid to see, the woman they’ve waited for for over a decade, Ms. Lauryn Hill, grace them with her presence?

After a quick change over, her DJ comes out and declares, “I’m just here to warm you up”. He plays for upwards of 30 minutes. The crowd grows sweaty, thirsty and frustrated. Though he sets the appropriate mood by playing 90s hip-hop hits like Biggie’s “Hypnotize” and Dr. Dre’s “Next Episode”, it’s not enough to feed the audience’s hunger. Reluctant to outright boo their beloved Lauryn, fans either chant her name, begging for her to start her set, stand impatiently and text, or take the time to use the restroom and grab another beer.

Slowly her band members enter to a now exhausted audience and lack-luster applause, casually slinging on their guitars and basses like it’s a chore. They look tired. 1 hour after Mos Def’s opening act and 2 hours after the listed-start time, Lauryn Hill finally walks on stage.

Nobody screams; nobody claps because, nobody can actually see her (even from the front row).

When you pay $75 for a Grammy-award winner’s tour, you figure you’ll at least be able to actually see them. Lauryn walks on in pure silhouette, which would be beautiful if it had symbolic resonance, but the lights remain dim on the used-to-be-star for her entire set.

Lauryn is backlit by elaborate strobes and powerful blues that circle themselves through the audience like search lights. After a song or two, fans begin to cover their eyes, look away and in some cases walk out because they cannot physically withstand her blinding lights. Clearly Lauryn doesn’t want to be seen.

From the front row you squint to see her, thirsty for just one detailed glimpse at the woman returned from self-exile. She looks like a bizarre cross between Annie Hall and an African Goddess: her wrists covered in gold bracelets, hoop earrings dangling from her ears, head and hair squished into a black bowler’s hat, sweating in a colorful knit vest.

Waving her arms like a mad-conductor, she comes across as pushy. For the next hour of a set she commands her band like a dictator, forcing them to play faster and tighter. Rather than focus on the singing, Lauryn is preoccupied with the perfection, speed and technique within the overall sound, which frankly doesn’t matter as much as the clarity of her vocals.

“Can you hear me?” she yells into the mic. “NO!” Julie screams from the front row, the entire audience yelling in agreement. Not only were fans like Julie straining to see, they couldn’t hear her either.

While some concertgoers blame the Aragon staff, the same complaints have been traveling with Lauryn on tour. Google search her and you’ll find countless articles on the diva’s lack of sound checks and remixing of her famous tracks.

And while one of the most essential elements of hip-hop is remixing, taking something old and putting a twist on it, making it relevant, paying homage while completely rearranging something, Lauryn does this to such an extreme, the songs she’s “sampling” or “remixing” are completely unrecognizable. Enraged and confused, Julie throws her hands up saying, “What is this? I can’t sing along to this.”

About a minute into each track, those of us still invested in deciphering Lauryn’s funk-flaired new sound, the original songs were detectable. But the set was bizarre. While Lauryn expectedly and appropriately kicked it off with the gritty, truth-spitting, complex “Lost Ones”, and astutely included her biggest singles “Doo Whop” and Fugees’ “Ready or Not”, particularly soulful and meaningful tracks were missing. Twelve years later, Lauryn’s raps are still tight, twisted and complicated as they tickle our ear drums, but we miss her simplicity. What happened to the gospel-spreading, stool-perching, soul-belting solo act that won our hearts?

Lauryn spends a full quarter of her set paying homage to her baby daddy’s (Rohan Marley) father, Bob Marley. Not that Mr. Marley doesn’t deserve due credit, but with all due respect, Chicago fans came to hear Miseducation, not “Buffalo Soldier”. Without any new material, not even a single, Lauryn can’t afford to be playing more than one cover per set and she plays three.

To pump us up, she should be starting with funky and joyful anthems like “Every Ghetto, Every City” which sets the comeback tone we assume she’s trying to put out. This single tracks Lauryn’s journey to stardom and looks back on the environments and events that made her who she is. What a stellar way to say “I’m back. Here’s who I am.”

We miss the human, fragile Lauryn, the young woman who hopes and dreams and who cares enough to criticize. Her absolutely stunning track “To Zion” where Lauryn describes her decision to leave the industry for the birth of her first son Zion, and how joyful it feels to be pregnant, would be a perfect fit for a comeback tour. It shows us that the woman we haven’t seen in years is still alive in there somewhere. Not to mention, she’s pregnant again.

And so if she’s pregnant, why is she coming back now? Lauryn’s pregnant belly is hard to ignore. And yet she makes no mention of it. In fact, unlike most contemporary entertainers, she resists giving anecdotes or talking to her audience between tracks.

So her audience nearly runs out of the Aragon, sweaty, tired, and $75 lighter. And for what? The least Lauryn could have done is sell merchandise. Perhaps her audience is angry enough already; they don’t need a t-shirt to remind them of the worst $75 they’ve spent. But if Hill’s plan is to make money, where are the tote bags, t-shirts, and posters?

Clearly, Lauryn’s got a lot to learn if she seriously plans on returning to the spotlight. First, showing up on time is a good start. Going to a concert you can’t hear is like going to the Aurora Borealis blind. If you want to make a comeback re-introduce yourself by reminding us of why we love you. Play songs we know and love in a way that we can appreciate them. Wait to tour until you’ve had your baby. This way you can dedicate yourself to a return and stick around.

When you show up 3 hours late in Brooklyn, don’t greet your fans with, “I personally know I’m worth the wait”, because sadly, you’re not. We don’t know why you’re coming back to us if you’re not visible or audible. So ready or not, here we come you can’t hide (again), we’re gonna find you and ask for our money back.