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Lauryn Hill - Brixton Academy, London 20/09/14

23 September 2014, 17:57 | Written by Thomas Hannan

Every person inside Brixton Academy is ready to have a really brilliant, top ten of their year, maybe top five of their life kind of night. Lauryn Hill’s warm up DJ is playing a mixture of classic West and East Coast hip hop with Bob Marley standards and of-the-minute dancehall thrown in, and the whole floor is dancing, singing, jumping, hugging. He tells us we’re going to hear some Fugees songs tonight (screams). And some Miseducation Of... cuts (bigger screams). And some Unplugged material (less screams, but still – Fugees! Miseducation!). And he’s kind of right.

Kind of. Such is the love in the room for Ms. Lauryn Hill (as she’s chosen to be billed) this evening that even her hour and a half delayed arrival to the stage is still greeted like that of a returning deity. Her opening choice of a lengthy, drawn out Bob Marley cover – not the last of the evening, either – is similarly tolerated because, y’know, it’s probably going to get really fucking good when she starts on that Fugees and Miseducation stuff. But Lauryn Hill has a different kind of night in mind, one that’s a fine showcase of her still-present skills as a vocalist and rapper, but also indicative of a desire to be taken seriously as an arranger of music, one who can play fast and loose with her back catalogue because , the idea seems to be, her singing and MCing are so dazzling in themselves that we won’t care that the songs we’re hearing - despite sharing the same titles on the setlist - sound nothing like we’re used to them sounding. Nothing at all.

It’s a nice idea, but a hugely frustrating one. The new arrangements of these wonderful, wonderful songs are the problem; they’re almost all sickly smooth, adult contemporary jazz re-workings that bear nothing in relation to their originals other than sharing some – but not all – of the same lyrics. Much in the way they do at Bob Dylan concerts, where he infamously treats anything he’s written before 2013 as ripe for bastardisation, the crowd spends the first few minutes of each tune waiting for a lyric to arrive that they recognise, only for Hill to subsequently treat the song like an opera singer opening a Rugby game with the national anthem, flailing wildly from the melody and choosing to favour vocal acrobatics over any sing-a-long thrills. The biggest offender is a frankly hideous version of “Ex Factor”; ripped of all its romantic torment, it veers so wildly from the sound and sentiment of the original that people greet its climax with boos rather than cheers.

The effort that’s gone in to these rearrangements is staggering – they really do sound that different – but the payoff is nonexistent. To reiterate; it’s not that Hill’s lost the ability to sing. The plodding acoustic section of the show, drawing largely from the under-loved MTV Unplugged 2.0 LP of 2002, if nothing else shows that the pipes on her are still formidable. And when she plays things even a little bit straighter on The Fugees’ “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-Laa”, the crowd finally gets a go at what it wants to do all evening – be wowed by Hill’s lightning fast rapping, and bellow along to a classic chorus. But even on these numbers, the truly enjoyable sections can’t last for more than, say, 16 bars – and when she mutates signature tune “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in to a similarly frustrating Frankenstein funk-lite version of its initially promising self, folks finally lose all patience.

Myself included – sadly, the only ‘top five of my life’ list this night will make it on to is one called ‘My Most Disappointing Evenings’. And I’m a West Ham United season ticket holder.

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