Cloaked in an oversized leopard coat and matching pants, Ms. Lauryn Hill clutched the microphone and turned the name of our town into a song of its own.
“Berkeley,” she wailed deep into a cover of Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good,” transforming the moment into the thesis of her November 4 performance and stringing out the word over the heads of the audience, which were streaked with rays of the soft purple lights emanating from the stage. She drew it out, echoing the word off of the hills standing guard over the Greek Theater and boomeranging it back down across the silhouette of the Campanile and the Golden Gate Bridge.
She threw her voice around like a toy, dominating the attention of all those within earshot and seducing the audience, reasserting her star power with a self-awareness that could not have been anything other than completely deliberate.
“Berkeley,” she sang again. “No matter what they say…I’m feeling good.”
Ms. Lauryn Hill is back from whatever trip we thought she was on after the shattering success of her 1998 debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Miseducation’s success seemed to send Hill into an abrupt anonymity and absence, resulting in fans and media questioning the artist’s celebrity presence, and even her sanity. She gave a jarring speech in 2000, at one point saying,“so what I realized is you know what? I can’t create if I can’t live. I can’t be in this vacuum of, you know, of creativity, creativity, creativity, without life.”
And now, almost two decades later and allegedly working on new music, Lauryn Hill delivered a live performance that stunned, and proved that wherever she went post Miseducation is a) none of our business and b) a non factor in her current star-power. She came to blow all misperceptions of her grip on herself and the surrounding world out of the water.
She came to preach, perform, shock, and reaffirm her deserving status as one of the best voices in the world.
Three background singers covered Hill’s studio parts, so the rapper’s live performance on top of that melodic foundation added a new dimension to what we’ve heard before. Her words were faster, more aggressive and darker. Yet Hill, unlike so many others with beautiful voices, has mastered the art of dancing between light and dark. Just as it gets hard and gritty, she lifts the audience out, yet still grounding every moment of lightness and beauty in anger, toughness and reality.
Hill’s set was preceded by New York rapper Nas, who donned Beast Mode Cal gear and performed with a swagger that paralleled his outfit.
Highlights included 1994 Illmatic classic “The World is Yours,” as well as singalong “I Can” and a remix and tribute to Bob Marley’s “One Love,” which reaffirmed Nas’ status as one of the most deep and creative rappers of our time.
During interludes the rapper listed Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson as his musical inspirations along with Ms. Hill, who he later joined onstage during her set to perform “If I Ruled The World,” which the two collaborated on in 1996, culminating in one of the most exciting moments of the show.
The two acts worked together beautifully; proven by the ease at which the staccato bopping of the audience during Nas’ set immediately metamorphosed into a hypnotic pulse, as the listeners were captivated by the voice of an earthly goddess.
On stage, there were ten others. The band jammed, the background singers soared, but when Hill walked out it was clear the music was hers to orchestrate, to conduct, to mold into a performance that transcends the pure auditory aesthetic of the music and repurposes the studio versions of her already timeless songs. She created a new beast.
Her voice—upon first note—was hypnotic. The audience was puppeted by every gasp, rasp, and hoot. Every word punched and drawled and rapped showcased a different emotion. She held us hostage to her unpredictability, playing with the harmony and the syntax, changing words, notes and sequence.
During classics such as “Lost Ones” and “Doo Wop (That Thing),” she rapped at what seemed like an insane 7000 beats per second, switching into falsetto and harmonizing with an expertise so natural that you would never know she’s switching gears—straddling genre binaries and effortlessly switching from gangster rap and soul, blues and rock.
She attacked the lyrics with tenacity and fervor. Performing with energy that sought to prove that she is back (or maybe that she never even left), she exited the stage dropping a new constitution that addressed her fiery reemergence into performance, stardom, and the national stage: “Berkeley, I want you to know I’ve been through a lot. But I feel good.”
And she left us feeling good too.
Written by Natalie Silver
Photos by Michelle Cho