In 1998, Lauryn Hill, at the tender age of 23, released her first and only solo record that would, with time, be anointed as a cultural touchstone — the urgently present and soulfully resonant The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Not only was Miseducation considered an intricately woven tapestry of the most influential genres in Black culture — seamlessly traversing between the testosterone-laden dynamism of hip-hop, the nostalgic embrace of doo-wop (an embrace that existed more in yearning than in actuality), and the rebellious heartbeat of reggae — it uniquely stood out from the pack by exhibiting a sonorous declaration of a woman’s sense of self.
On “Ex-Factor,” Hill embodies the Killer Mike proclamation of “So fuck you, fuckboys forever, I hope I said it politely” by bidding a fond farewell to the relentless cycle of disappointing men (in this case, her mentor-turned-bandmate-turned-lover, Wyclef Jean). On “Everything Is Everything,” Hill brings hip-hop back to its socially conscious roots — lamenting the struggles that disproportionately impact Black America and reminding her people that God doesn’t give a fuck about the fortunes of the oppressor.
These themes of fearlessness, resolute independence, and the celebration of womanhood resonate throughout “Miseducation.” Each note, each lyric, each vocal expression emerges as a testament, sung by a then expectant mother who, by virtue of her identity as a Black woman, had to labor doubly to stake her claim in a world that historically does not acknowledge her worth.
The success of Miseducation led to Hill retreating away from the watchful eye of the public. Instead of recording another record, she fired her management team. Instead of accepting potentially career-defining roles in movies like The Matrix Reloaded and Dreamgirls, she went to Bible study five days a week. It is a common narrative for the ostensible “genius” of an era to disappear as a recluse, but for Hill, it was hard not to interpret that her transparent telling of her own self-discovery became a burden to her ability to live a life that she did not yet understand.
All of this, in addition to the relative dormancy of her Fugees bandmates Pras and the ever-eclectic and aforementioned jilted lover, Wyclef Jean, gives context to why a full-on reunion of The Fugees attached to a co-headlining tour with Ms Lauryn Hill sent cultural shockwaves across various musical fandoms.
Those shockwaves remained palpable in a sold-out Kia Forum. A diverse audience ranging across multiple generations was dressed to the nines as if they were preparing for Ms. Hill to appear fashionably late. The night before at the Crypto Arena, Hill explained her ostensible chronic lateness. “You’re saying ‘She’s late. She’s late a lot.’ Yo, y’all lucky I make it on this … stage every night.” Such sentiments run the risk of desiccating the collective vigor of any audience, though, through whispered conversations, it became evident that there existed an expectation that tardiness in and of itself is part of the Lauryn Hill experience. By the time she came on the stage (an hour and 45 minutes past the billed time) in a crimson-red gown shaped like a Yayoi Kusama sculpture and the opening siren cry of “Everything is Everything” scoured over the arena, the elation of the audience transformed the vibes from patient frustration to what the kids might refer to as immaculate.
Hill stood grounded in the spotlight, a microphone in one hand and a black towel in another; she provoked a ripened spirituality that can only come with age — as if Hill’s precocious sentiments that came out of The Score and Miseducation finally caught up with her lived experience. The majority of her songs had a slight rhythmic and melodic reworking, offering a rare glimpse at how Hill might have rearranged her recordings if she were to produce her classic songs in the modern age. Hill’s voice, while retaining its silkiness, now bore a coarse, gruff quality akin to the legendary Mavis Staples.
Hill’s set hit a crescendo with the appearance of another East Coast legend with the unbearable weight of expectations attached to his identity — the incomparable Nas. With a rowdy crowd singing every word to “If I Ruled The World,” the energy levels rose to an apex that carried through a brief intermission to introduce the second half of the co-headlining billing — The Fugees. Hill, with her sunglasses off and her black towel thoroughly damp, matched the infectious vitality of Pras and Wyclef, who both exhibited a hype that aligned with the moment’s significance.
Being in Los Angeles has its perks. It’s a major city and the center of the entertainment world, making it easy for left-field guests and friends to create “moments” for the crowd. Lil Wayne, fresh off his guest appearance at DJ Khaled’s opening set at Beyonce’s Renaissance (only to unceremoniously leave the stage when his mic stopped working), made up for those previous technical difficulties by accompanying The Fugees in “Ready or Not,” subsequently followed by one of his own, “A Milli.” Los Angeles legends Cypress Hill came to the stage surrounded by a miasma of anticipated smoke to perform the still-relevant “How Could I Just Kill A Man?”.
Despite the star-studded guest appearances, The Fugees ended their set (now nearing midnight on a school night) with a sequence of hits so stone cold that Steve Austin himself would be stunned. “Ghetto Superstar” reminded the millennial crowd when they first heard of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton; “Killing Me Softly With His Song” transported the audience to countless nights spent in karaoke bars, all singing “one time, one time” in a collective, inebriated chorus; and “Fu-Gee-La” brought us to the end of the night — centering the three misfits as if they were back in a Jersey suburb, spitting rhymes around a kitchen table — unbeknownst to a future that will be shaped by their communal chemistry.
Words and photos by Eric Han
Fugees photos by Timothy Norris/Kia Forum