Few artists can claim to have transformed contemporary music on the merit of one studio album, but Lauryn Hill can. Her game-changing 1998 solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill fused melodic elements from soul, reggae and gospel music and channelled them through hip-hop. As with her previous work with rap collective the Fugees, Hill’s lyrics raised awareness on issues ranging from gender politics to race. Her number one album and ten Grammy nominations took hip-hop and neo-soul to a mainstream audience.
Wednesday night’s sold-out show at the Palais Theatre opened with a reggae-inspired take on the Fugees’ hit Killing Me Softly. Hill’s slightly raspy, impassioned vocals set the tone and her audience-infecting energy continued as she reworked her songs with synths, djembe drums and electric guitars. She was supported by three back up singers with whom she had an easy rapport, and enlisted the support of the audience to cheer them on.
Midway through Everything is Everything she shifted from her contralto register to rapid-fire rapping with unrelenting force: “Now hear this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture”. Her seemingly natural rapping ability proved to hip-hop fans that time hadn’t changed anything. She can still hold up with the best of them.
She ad-libbed and invited audience sing-alongs including her track about her son To Zion. It was one of the few tracks from her debut album that hadn’t been given a new arrangement. She conducted the audience to sing along during different parts of the song. The theatre filled with the sound of the crowd chanting the lyrics back to her and as she held her microphone to the audience she smiled, clearly touched by the audience’s investment.
“I know there are some Unplugged fans out there, Melbourne,” she said at the start of her second set. Seated on a bar stool she played an acoustic guitar and sang a medley of unrecorded tracks she had performed in 2002 on MTV Unplugged. Bathed in a deep blue light her rich, seemingly effortless vocals hushed the capacity audience into silence; as if listening to her and her music for the first time.
The concert’s set list covered well-known songs from Hill’s solo career as well as those released from the Fugees’ classic album The Score. The audience’s excitement reached a high when she performed Ready Or Not, covering ex-Fugees members Wyclef Jean and Pras’ verses with a newfound energy and conviction.
The lesser known songs were omitted such as her cover of the Frankie Valli hit Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You so some fans might have been left wanting – but her coverage of the tracks that gave her the status she has today was enough to satisfy most of those who had grown up listening to her notable classics.
Hill’s show ran for 90 minutes – half an hour short of the two-hour performance that had been advertised. Occasionally Hill’s ad-libbing went on too long and in some of the full-band numbers her raspy vocals, reminiscent of Nina Simone, were overshadowed. But in an era of formulaic hip-hop and a climate riddled with misogyny and bigotry, Hill and her 15-year-old body of work is still providing music with a fresh and much-needed voice.