Lauryn Hill Gives Props To Soul Forebears In Tour Warm-Up

Grammy-winning hip-hopper covers Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, even TLC.

MILWAUKEE — Lauryn Hill has repeatedly been called the

future of hip-hop in the year since she released The Miseducation of

Lauryn Hill. But everything about the five-time Grammy winner's

performance and the crowd's reaction to it here Wednesday night suggests

she's set her sights on something even bigger.

Part soul revue, part gospel revival and part hip-hop house party,

Hill's performance warmed up a chilly night on Milwaukee's lakefront. As

the evening's headliner at the Brew City's Summerfest music festival,

Hill drew a multiracial crowd of more than 20,000 to the Marcus

Amphitheater, while smaller crowds gathered around side stages to hear

such album-rock dinosaurs as Foreigner and Journey.

The diversity of Hill's crowd — as opposed to the largely

homogeneous throng at the side stages — and of her material —

a genre-busting blend of soul, reggae and hip-hop — suggests that

she may well have her fingers on the pulse of pop music's future.

As an example of just how deeply Hill's audience connects with her

music, the crowd sang along from the first notes of a radically reworked

version of "Ex-Factor," which featured a punchy horn arrangement and

gospel-tinged backing vocals. The fans stayed on their feet throughout

Hill and her 16-piece band's two-hour set, even during a lengthy

percussion solo and an extended DJ mix.

Hill focused on her solo material, but also included three songs by the

Fugees, her original band, and offered nods to soul and R&B forebears

Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye.

If Hill's music points to the future, the fact that she explicitly

honors her musical ancestors may be a key factor in her success.

"Her lyrics remind me of Curtis Mayfield," said Dolores Delgado of

Milwaukee, who declined to give her age but said she made a special

point of bringing her teenage niece to the show.

"She's got a conscious connection to tradition, without feeling forced,"

Alexander Shashko, 25, of Madison, said. "She crosses the threshold into

being her own artist and sounding contemporary, not like some retro

act."

Despite her commanding stage presence — Hill worked her band, the

stage and the crowd with a confidence that belies the fact she's only 23

— she seemed to work just as hard at staying down-to-earth. Clad in

a light purple T-shirt and white wide-leg slacks, Hill looked more like

the north Jersey girl she is than the diva she's been called. But she

also left no doubt that she's concerned with something even bigger than

the future of R&B or pop.

After being beckoned for 20 minutes by chants of "Lauryn! Lauryn!" Hill

took the stage not with a song but with a preacher's exhortation: "We

make music to please Him." She then invoked Matthew 3:10, a biblical

verse about cutting down trees that don't bring forth good fruit, before

launching into "Ex-Factor," confirming the spiritual strain that runs

through much of her work.

After run-throughs of the Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La" and "Ready or Not," Hill

put her own fame in perspective. "People ask me what life is about," she

said. "It's not about money, it's not about sex, it's not about clothes,

cars or the women you can get," she shouted, then launched into "Final

Hour" and "Lost Ones" (

href="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Hill,_Lauryn/Lost_Ones.ram">RealAudio

excerpt), two songs that warn of the dangers of the quest for

cash and power.

The show wasn't all fire and brimstone. Hill left the stage for a

costume change — if you can call a switch into a different T-shirt

and slacks a costume change — while her two DJs (DJ Supreme and

Leon Higgins) ran through a ferocious display of turntable prowess,

getting the crowd moving to a mix that included OutKast's "Rosa Parks"

and Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize."

When she returned, Hill told the crowd she was "going to do something a

little different, a competition with the band versus the DJs." The next

20 minutes saw Hill and the band perform versions of the Jackson 5's "I

Want You Back," Wonder's "Master Blaster" and TLC's "No Scrubs,"

interpolated by the DJs spinning a mix of old-school soul, disco and

funk.

This nod to the African-American tradition of the "cutting contest"

— in which musicians trade licks and let the crowd decide who's the

better player — showed that Hill could party, but the crowd was

more than ready for her to return to originals such as "To Zion" and

"Doo Wop (That Thing)," which closed out the regular set.

After a brief pause, Hill and band returned to play the Fugees' "Killing

Me Softly" — an update of a Roberta Flack song — and Hill's

new single, "Everything Is Everything" (RealAudio

excerpt). For the first time in the concert, which had been

plagued by a muddy sound mix, each instrument could be clearly heard,

and funky guitars and polyrhythmic percussion rocked the song harder

than the recorded version.

When the lights came up and reggae played over the P.A. system, Hill's

message stuck with the crowd as much as her sound did. Many fans cited

the spiritual and political side of her music when talking about why

they liked her. Kris, a 29-year-old fan who asked that her last name not

be used, put it succinctly: "Lauryn Hill is wise."

The Milwaukee show was a warm-up date for Hill's 23-date U.S. tour,

which starts July 11 in Wantagh, N.Y. Part of the tour's proceeds will

benefit the Refugee Project, a nonprofit organization Hill founded to

help disadvantaged youth.