Friday, May 13, 2011

My Re-Education, with Lauryn Hill

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth.

Some days, the radio can sound so empty. The current vogue on American radio is overproduced dance beats layered over a hook to mask a thinly veiled voice trilling about hypersexual activity. This post on The Village Voice puts it most succinctly: it’s not that the records are terrible, it’s just that they’ve become a bit run-of-the-mill. By characterizing certain voices as “robotic” and “plasticized”, what we’re left with is a lack of distinct voices. That an artist as imaginative and original as Janelle Monae, who rivals Lady Gaga for producing some of the greatest hooks and visual trickery out there today, isn’t a bigger star is criminal. (Ironic that Monae’s album is based on the robotic character in Fritz Lang’s silent movie Metropolis but is more animated than the photocopied, soulless beats of, say, Britney Spears or Ke$ha.) This unfortunately speaks to the current appetite for naughty-but-safe product lacking strong artistic vision. In times like these, I return to Ms. Lauryn Hill, who is currently on tour and is coming to the Blogger’s home town of Vancouver on May 24 and May 25 for a pair of shows.

Born from the frustrations of her time with the Fugees and in particular the fallout from her professional and intense personal relationship with Wyclef Jean, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill spoke of romantic betrayal, the empty pursuit of commercial gain, low self-esteem, the falsity and fragility of public image and set it all to an irresistible groove that has not and will not age. Miseducation is perhaps the ultimate R&B/hip-hop concept album, with its thesis that the definition of joy is misbegotten and distorted due to the barrage of imagery and ideas that are actually empty shells. Ten years before Gaga came out with The Fame, Ms. Hill already explored the topic of fame and committed it to sound. The difference is that whereas Gaga aspired to fame, Ms. Hill saw fame from her direct experience with it, and found it lacking.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is wall-to-wall with kernels of wisdom that are simple yet no-nonsense. This album was the sound of the summer of 1998, following a winter and spring where “My Heart Will Go On” just would. Not. Die. on the radio. After seasons of romantic idealization in a honeymoon period, Ms. Hill was like the friend who is almost brutally frank, but never less than completely honest and loving. She never sold platitudes or promises of love. Her only promise was to honour her listener with hard-earned, painful truths she learned in her life, and she trusts that they will guide you and make you whole. And she made it sound nothing less than heavenly. These are some of the greatest words ever committed to sonic record:

“Wisdom is greater than silver and gold.”

“How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?”

 “Music is supposed to inspire, so how come we ain’t getting’ no higher?”

Perhaps the genius masterstroke that elevated the album past the hooks, the beats, the raps, the melodies and the glorious voice that united it all were the spoken interludes between each song. Each track was followed by the sounds of an imaginary classroom of teenagers and a teacher communicating and ruminating on themes explored in the previous (and sometimes upcoming) tracks. This indirect deconstruction is an artful conceit but is not introduced as a cheap gimmick to show off how “smart” Ms. Hill is. Her words are already wise, clear and unambiguous, and she doesn’t have to elaborate further. They’re there to enhance what came before and after.

It was the success of the album that caused Ms. Hill to deconstruct her idea of celebrity even more than she did before. Despite winning an armload of Grammys, sales of eight million (unheard of today) and several publications naming the record the best of the decade, Ms. Hill took it very personally when a number of business associates stepped forward claiming it was they, and not she, who was the musical genius behind the record. Ms. Hill was pursued in the press and found dissonance between a public image of herself and her private self. Rather than the artificial pleas for privacy so many celebrities claim to want, she went one step further by becoming reclusive. It was this sensational 2003 Rolling Stone article that fed her mystique. Ms. Hill became the quintessential creative genius: the type who made one game-changing record (three counting her output with The Fugees), went through a private breakdown publicly, and then vanished from view. When she did the occasional concert in the years that ensued, she would appear four hours late to the stage and deliver rambling renditions of her records that rendered them unrecognizable and alienated some of her devotees. Every couple of years, music journalists wanted to find out the question as to what happened to Ms. Hill, as evidenced by articles such as these. In other words, she cemented her status as a legend whether she intended to or not.

At some point, the tide changed. Sometime last year, she resurfaced in an interview with National Public Radio and appeared at sporadic public events looking as beautiful as the day she first came to public consciousness in the mid-90s. She made an appearance last night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon showing that she’s still back on top of her game. That she is now back in the public eye and touring gives hope to discerning music fans that her next piece of genius is on the horizon. It will be a monumental task, as her 2002 MTV Unplugged album did not sell well and was nothing less than a nervous breakdown caught on tape. Regardless of what she chooses to do, Ms. Hill ultimately has her own legend and now legendary record to live up to, and we true music fans are the better for it. As she put it in her single “Everything Is Everything”, “after winter must come spring”.

Lauryn Hill’s latest tour will kick off tonight in Las Vegas. Ms. Hill will play the famed Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on May 24 and May 25. Tickets sold out almost literally within nanoseconds for the first show once they went on sale, but tickets are still available for the second evening of what is sure to be pair of legendary shows. Tickets cost $97.25 inclusive of all taxes and service charges. The tour dates are:

Lauryn Hill 2011 “Moving Target” Tour Dates:
05/13 – Las Vegas, NV @ The Boulevard Pool
05/14 – Santa Barbara, CA @ Santa Barbara Bowl
05/17 – Pomona, CA @ The Fox Theatre
05/18 – San Francisco, CA @ Mezzanine
05/20 – Eugene, OR @ Cuthbert Ampitheatre
05/22 – Seattle, WA @ Showbox SoDo
05/24 – Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom
05/25 – Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom
05/27 – Calgary, AB @ Flames Central
05/28 – Edmonton, AB @ Edmonton Event Centre
05/30 – Winnipeg, MB @ Centennial Concert Hall
06/03 – Chicago, IL @ Aragon Ballroom
06/04 – Detroit, MI @ Chene Park
07/30 – Los Angeles, CA @ LA Rising *

* = w/ Rage Against the Machine, Muse, Rise Against, Immortal Technique, & El Gran Silencio

Welcome back Ms. Hill.