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
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" (
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
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.