Return of the commanding, still-skilled Ms. Lauryn Hill

Posted: January 31, 2011

Maybe Lauryn Hill - or, excuse me, Ms. Lauryn Hill, as the Fugees singer, rapper, and songwriter who played a sold-out show Saturday at the House of Blues in Atlantic City now calls herself - is just a genius of expectation management.

When Hill showed up three hours late for a show in New York at the start of her 2011 comeback tour this month, it didn't seem like such a good PR move.

Word of Web instantly went from excitement at the long- awaited return of arguably the greatest combination singer-MC in hip-hop history, all but unheard from since 1998's landmark The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, to how-could-you-be-so-arrogant irritation.

But when everyone expects you to be three hours late, showing up a mere one hour behind schedule, as Hill did Saturday at the stroke of midnight, doesn't seem half so bad.

When she made her entrance, she did it with style, sporting a Pam Grier Afro to go with an African print cape, plus forearms full of glittering bracelets. And she immediately established her vocal bona fides by crooning a rugged yet harmonious version of Bob Marley's "Forever Loving Jah." It was one of three covers of the reggae icon that Hill, mother of five by Marley's son Rohan, would sing in the nearly two-hour show.

In her decade in exile as the Garbo-Salinger of hip-hop, no one has filled Hill's high heels as a spiritually inclined singer capable of a velvety Roberta Flack cover - yep, she did "Killing Me Softly," from the Fugees 1996 megahit album, The Score - who can also spit verses with unassailable skill.

As Kanye West put it in "Champion," referring to Hill's oldest son, Zion, who joined his mother and siblings in Marley's "Turn Your Lights Down Low": "Lauryn Hill say her heart is in Zion / I wish her heart still was in rhymin'." At the House of Blues, it appeared to be. She was particularly sharp on "How Many Mics," rhyming "anatomy," "Deuteronomy," "Go ask Alice if you don't believe me" and "I got Innervisions like Stevie."

She handled her verses as well as those by former bandmates Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, and after banging hard through the song, doubled back with a jazzier, scatsinging approach.

Time away has done nothing to diminish the 35-year-old Hill's confidence. She led her aggressive six-man/three-woman vocalist band and addressed the audience imperiously, like a hip-hop Nina Simone. "Ladies, I want you to sing along to this," she said of the antimaterialistic "Final Hour." "Guys, you can sing, too. You hear me?" It was a command, not a request.

The show at times felt scattered - songs restlessly reworked, most closing with call-and-response exchanges that often went on too long. But mostly, it was heartening to see Hill alive in the moment, never more so than with a shimmery cover of the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You," followed by the Fugees' hit that sampled it, "Zealots."

She performed no new material, so it's an open question whether she can make a true return to relevance. But clearly she intends to, as she added the same pledge to "Ready or Not" and the closing "Doo Wop (That Thing)." "You were looking out for me," she sang. "And now I'm coming back to you." She plays South Street's Theater of Living Arts on Feb. 8.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog,

"In the Mix," at http://www.philly.

com/philly/blogs/inthemix/

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