Lauryn Hill, Coliseum, London

Terrific songs, awful poetry

Chris Mugan
Friday 19 July 2013 21:06

Several numbers in, she claimed her soundcheck was late, an excuse met with some boos. Then she poked fun at herself, saying that she only chose her outfit at the last minute and was mistress of procrastination. So - passion, honesty and humour, all wrapped up in one unpredictable package.

Hill was always a brave choice to close ENO's celebration of voice. True, she has a great talent for both rap and song, plus a fluid style that encompasses hip-hop, soul and reggae. All this we knew from the monster debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which won her five Grammys and proved she could succeed away from her perceived mentor Wyclef Jean.

Then, failed relationships and born-again religious fervour preceded 2001's ill-advised MTV Unplugged session, a solo performance of unreleased material that only became a double-disc set due to between-song rambling and tears. Since then, Hill has mainly been hiding in Miami to work on the long-awaited second album proper. As a twist, she rejoined her original band last month to perform at a US awards bash. So the time was right to remind us of her own potential.

She soon showed why she should stand above the more mainstream Mary J Blige and Alicia Keys. Her rich voice was strong and earthy, with no tedious octave-ranging gymnastics, and the rhymes came sharp as broken glass.

Hill's set relied on her classic first album, and nothing beat its powerful anthems "Everything is Everything" and the pumped-up reggae of "To Zion", which segued nicely into a snatch of Bob Marley's "Iron Lion Zion". Still, it was a joy to hear "Just Want You Around" from MTV Unplugged 2.0 given the big band treatment, as Hill's sparse acoustic sketch was fleshed out with rhythm. Dressed in prim pleated skirt, she started her own salsa routine that lasted the whole gig. The best of the new material was "I Have to Walk", where her gospel delivery collided with samba percussion.

One problem with the 19-piece group was that everyone played most of the time; there was rarely space for a tune to emerge or individual musicians to shine.

Then Hill picked up her pint-sized guitar for a solo spot: cause for concern, as she had accompanied herself in clumsy fashion on the live album. Now her playing was more stylish, with downward chord progressions adding melancholy to the engaging "Social Drugs", in which tradition and etiquette are the root of her "chemical analogy" - a hint she was back from her navel-gazing period to something more gritty.

There was only one meandering speech, where Hill attempted to justify her actions - and lack of them - by likening creativity to making love. This was preferable, though, to Mary J Blige's choreographed emotional grandstanding or the needy attention-seeking of Mariah Carey. When Hill leant on a mic stand to give us a piece of her mind, you felt you could have been harangued by her on a New Jersey street corner.

Next came poetry, with Hill trying to sum up the world's problems by reciting every word she knew ending in "ism". Oh, dear. Then back to The Fugees for a medley that began with a searing "Ready or Not", raps included and memorable for her strident vocal that made it a truly sinister warning. Not that Hill needed to rely on old glories: she had plenty to say, and enough ways to say it.

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