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Lauryn Hill’s 25th ‘Miseducation’ celebration passes with a grade curve

Lauryn Hill (Source: AP)
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NEW YORK — “Twenty-five years of support. 25 years of love… it’s our first show, it’s a little challenging because we’re home, and I’ve been emotional.”

Those were the words Lauryn Hill spoke to an adoring crowd as she kicked off the “Ms. Lauryn Hill & Fugees: Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 25th Anniversary Tour.” Throughout the night, the artist who now styles herself as Ms. Lauryn Hill, re-lived songs from her iconic album in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center, located about 20 minutes away from her hometown of East Orange.

Standing regally with flowy black pants, jeweled sunglasses and a white shirt with oversized balloon sleeves covered by an enormous, reddish floral-like cape, Hill triumphantly proclaimed, “New Jersey, I’m home!”

As a packed house stood on their feet, the eclectic singer, flanked by a sizeable band which included a string section, began with a powerful rendition of “Everything is Everything.” Accompanying Hill were marching band students from her alma mater, Columbia High School. (Other students from the area would perform “Doo Wop (That Thing)” at the end of her set.)

But significant audio issues muffled Hill’s angelic, yet powerful voice throughout the night. At times, “The Sweetest Thing” artist cut through the sound challenges, delivering beautiful renditions of some of her most popular songs.

Yelling out “Zion!” — the ode to her first born and a beloved fan favorite — Hill was greeted with enormous cheers. The deeply personal song details how she continued with her pregnancy despite industry concerns that a child would derail her promising career. As fans stood captivated while Hill emotionally belted out lyrics, pictures and home videos of a then-baby Zion played on giant screens behind her. She would follow with wonderful performances of “Nothing Even Matters,” “Too Good to Be True,” and a stirring presentation of the title track.

The sheer brilliance and the magnitude of “Miseducation” is often hard to encapsulate. Considered as one of the greatest American albums of the 20th century, it earned five Grammys, including “Album of the Year,” becoming the first hip-hop album to win that honor.

More importantly, its subjects about romance, Black love and self-worth won hearts worldwide, and that’s partly why fans are so sensitive about Ms. Hill. Sharply rapping and singing majestically — not comparative to the current melodic rap style — Hill captured both traditional R&B lovers and hardcore hip-hop fans. Disappointingly, “Miseducation’’ would be her only solo studio album.

And if you’ve been wondering — yes, she was extremely tardy. While doors opened at 8 p.m., she didn’t hit the stage until about 9:50 p.m. (On Nas’s 2022 Grammy-winning best rap album, “King’s Disease II,” Hill provided a rare but stellar verse on “Nobody,” rhyming, “My awareness like Keanu in The Matrix/I’m saving souls and y’all complaining ’bout my lateness.”)

But there were other disappointments, although not entirely surprising for those who’ve followed her. Up-tempo versions of “When It Hurts So Bad,” “Superstar” and “Final Hour,” which contained hints of The Lox’s “Money Power Respect,” confused an audience unsure of how to follow along.

Rarely providing interviews, Hill addressed confusion in 2018 regarding her song arrangements (along with other rampant gossip) in a Medium op-ed, stating, “There’s no way I could continue to play the same songs over and over as long as I’ve been performing them without some variation and exploration. I’m not a robot. If I’d had additional music out, perhaps I would have kept them as they were.”

But her explanation has done little to appease fans who hold “Miseducation” in such high regard. The disappointment may have been most palpable during “Ex-Factor,” the beautiful, near flawless record about painfully and reluctantly ending a relationship. The sped-up tempo deprived the audience of the song’s emotion and connection, although fans did their best to accept what she provided.

After Hill’s solo set ended, she invited her Fugees bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras, on stage at around 11:10 p.m. They performed songs from their Grammy-winning catalog, as Hill revealed the group was unable to tour last year in celebration of the 25th anniversary of “The Score” like they hoped.

“A lot of people didn’t think this would happen, including some of the people on stage,” said Hill of the group’s reuniting. Pras responded to her with a resounding “Facts!” signaling he was probably one of those she was referring to.

Earlier this year, Pras Michel was found guilty of political conspiracy and is currently free ahead of sentencing.

The crowd, who would close the night at Hill’s urging by singing “Happy Birthday” to Wyclef who turned 54, rose to their feet when the group ended with their biggest hits: “Killing Me Softly,” “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La.”

In sports, home-field advantage can be a deciding factor; it’s why teams fight so hard to secure it as they head into the playoffs. A home crowd can shift the momentum of a game and provide a team with an extra boost when needed. Hill’s show was far from perfect, but she was surrounded by people who loved her, were touched by her music and those who literally grew up with her — both literally and metaphorically.

“The Miseducation” performance failed at some points, and simple fixes could’ve made it stellar. But her fans gave her a passing grade, even if they were biased, grading on a curve. And there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s what home-field advantage is for. The tour will resume Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. ___

Follow Associated Press journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.

Source: AP