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Pitchfork Music Festival: The Gratification And Frustration Of Lauryn Hill

There was a clock. You had to be looking at the stage from just the right angle to see it, but it was there. On the side of the stage, digital red numbers counted down, to the second, how much time Lauryn Hill had left before the Chicago authorities shut down the Pitchfork Music Festival for the weekend. And if you could see that clock, you couldn’t look away. At a certain point, I realized that Hill only had a few minutes left onstage, and that she hadn’t yet sung “Ex-Factor” or “To Zion” or “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Then, miraculously, an extra 10 minutes showed up on the clock. And when that started to run out, another 10 minutes were added. The clock eventually did run out, blinking red zeroes accompanying the end of the set. She ignored it the whole time. Lauryn Hill played chicken with the entire concept of time, and she won.

When Pitchfork announced that Hill would headline this year’s edition of its Festival, it seemed like a get, but it also seemed like a very serious roll of the dice. For years, Lauryn Hill has been infamous for her erratic live performances. She shows up late. She only does a few songs. She ignores her own hits, or she reworks them to the point where they’re unrecognizable. When you’re dealing with something as precisely planned out as a music festival, you can’t fuck around with unpredictability like that. So that clock had to be there.

Right now, Hill is touring her 1998 classic The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill by performing it in full every night. Or, in any case, that’s the theory. This isn’t a present-day Guns N’ Roses situation, a time when a famously unreliable band finally sharpens up and cashes in on the reunion circuit. Hill’s recent shows have been just as unpredictable as ever. Earlier in the week, shows in Toronto and Detroit were cut off early after she came to the stage late. All weekend, people at Pitchfork joked nervously about whether she’d even show up.

She showed up. That’s the good news. Hill came to the stage last night just 20 minutes late, which seemed like a victory. She was engaged and happy. She looked great. Her voice was strong. She sang most, though not all, of the songs on the album. (Other than her cover of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” all the hits were represented.) In one of the nicest moments of her set, Hill spoke, with real verve and emotion, about her experience making Miseducation and seeing it go out into the world. She talked about how she’d felt driven to “warrior through the resistance and deliver a piece of art” and about coming to understand that “this album has a life outside me, beyond me.” She loves the album as much as the rest of us, and she really wanted to do it justice.

It wasn’t always this way. With Miseducation, a 23-year-old Hill made an album that moved the entire world, that did about as well as a personal and genre-blurring soul-rap album could possibly do. And then she ran from it. Her follow-up was a double-album MTV Unplugged recording that featured no previously released songs. She still hasn’t released another studio album. She’s disappeared from the public for long periods of time. Already a mother when Miseducation came out, she had five more kids. She did a prison stint for tax evasion. She had a song on the soundtrack of a kids’ movie about penguins. She reunited with the Fugees for exactly two performances and one song.

In the context of Hill’s wild career, then, the mere idea of touring the anniversary of her one solo studio album seems radically conventional. It’s the closest she’s ever come to working the nostalgia circuit. It’s a move toward the crowd-pleasing, toward giving her fans something that they’ve always wanted. But as gratifying as it was to see her up on that stage, and to hear her doing those songs, it was just as frustrating. Look: Lauryn Hill shouldn’t have to become a human jukebox. And the last 20 years of her career should be enough to warn us that she’s going to do what she wants to do up on that stage. But when a performance is explicitly billed as a celebration of an album’s anniversary, you sort of expect to hear songs that sound at least something like what you recognize, right?

You will not be surprised to learn that that’s not what we got last night. Instead, Hill and her massive band rearranged all of those songs, turning them into extended vamps that sounded nothing like the originals. In itself, that’s not a bad thing. Erykah Badu, maybe the closest thing Hill has to a peer, habitually switches her songs up when she’s performing, and she finds fascinating and exciting new directions for them. That’s not what Hill does. Instead, she turns them into cluttered, busy funk vamps. She sings around her own melodies. When she raps, it’s spirited and exhortative, but it’s nowhere near the pocket. When she completely overhauls those old Miseducation songs, it’s not like she’s improving them.

Online and in conversations I’ve heard, there’s widespread speculation that Hill doesn’t have the rights to perform the studio versions of those old songs. In that unconfirmed story, the reason is Hill’s longstanding legal battle with the musicians who played on Miseducation and who claimed that they were denied songwriting credits. To hear some people tell it, she’s allowed to perform her own vocals, but her band can’t recreate those tracks. I’m skeptical. Is it even possible to legally regulate what music someone plays during a live performance? And don’t these completely deconstructed Miseducation songs just seem like something Hill would do? On the other hand, if that legal battle story was true, it wouldn’t even be one of the 10 craziest things about her post-Miseducation career.

All around the park last night, I watched people trying and failing to sing along with these songs — songs that, in their glorious original forms, truly demand singalongs. I watched Hill gesturing for her band to keep playing their watery funk riffs even when the people in the band seemed to be ready to wind down. I watched Hill turn “Forgive Them Father” into an endless zone-out. Even if you were happy to get the chance to see Lauryn Hill live, it wasn’t easy to ride with her. This was probably the sleekest, least dramatic version of a Lauryn Hill show that we’re ever likely to get in 2018, and it was still at least half a mess. Let the buyer beware.