Live: Lauryn Hill Demands to Be Heard in Post-Prison Return

Photographer Alex Wesh
November 28, 2013
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    Ms. Hill comes back giddy but defiant

    At her first concert since she spent three months in prison in Danbury, Conn., Ms. Lauryn Hill did not directly address the sentence for tax evasion that landed her at a low-security, all-female facility there. But the crowd, of course, knew the context of this set, which began at 11:40PM at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. (An earlier show at the same venue, also planned for Thanksgiving eve, was cancelled after the flights of some band members were delayed.) You could hear the context in the piercing shrieks that filled any silence and you could feel it in the way a lyric like after winter must come spring lingered in the air even as Ms. Hill sprinted through her verses. You could maybe even see it in her smile, or catch its spirit in the uplifting lilt of reggae that this time provided the mold for Hill’s constantly mutating hits.

    Hill’s shows can be frustrating for various reasons (tardiness, the reworking of favorites), but being locked away by the taxman is a frame that proved to strengthen the meaning of her songs. Only a certain type of political radical is likely to agree with Hill’s ideological resistance to the IRS, but it wasn’t hard on Wednesday night to see how the undeniable power of a black woman defiantly spitting protest raps has an even broader appeal in a country where both the income gap and government disillusionment is widening. Hill said it best 15 years ago anyway: it’s funny how money change a situation.

    There was plenty of fire during her set, but there was also a playful spontaneity that exuded the happy energy you might expect of someone playing her first post-incarceration concert. Early in the set Hill goaded Fugees producer Jerry Wonda out of the crowd to pluck the bass while she rapped fragmented lines. She also acted as conductor, instructing certain members of her eight-piece band to abruptly stop playing so her vocals rang louder, but she also frequently pushed them into improvisational jamming. During the encore, she brought out her teenage son Joshua, who bashfully rapped multiple verses off his phone while the band played a rendition of “Fuckin’ Problems.” Hill alternately egged him on and made sure the mic was close enough to his mouth so he could be heard over the crowd’s cheers.

    It wasn’t until the encore that Hill stopped to speak at any length, and it was after she performed her most recent song, “Consumerism," over the beat for Busta Rhymes’ “Don’t Touch Me (Throw Da Water On ‘Em).” “Consumerism” is almost impossibly knotty in both meaning and structure, and as Hill rapped the song her mouth was unable to keep up with the words firing out of her brain. She recognized this, and noted after the track's conclusion that her new material (including “Neurotic Society [Compulsory Mix]”) was so wordy because it is the product of bottled-up emotion. She mimed the seething rattle of a machine gun, intimating that her voice is a weapon that not even she can completely control.

    Then she recited some of the lyrics to “Consumerism” slowly and with no beat, as if she was doing spoken word. Modernism has created modern prisons/ Neo-McCarthyisms, new colonialisms... Impositions, superstitions, violence and contradictions/ False pretense and no convictions. This is dense and theoretical stuff, but one only needs to know names like Edward Snowden or Renisha McBride to argue that “Neo-McCarthyisms” and false pretenses and no convictions are more pertinent topics of discussion than Macklemore’s self-gratifying stances or Lorde’s distaste for gold teeth and champagne. But then again, Ms. Hill had to pause and spell it out for even her most fervent fans.

    Live: Lauryn Hill Demands to Be Heard in Post-Prison Return