By BRUCE DENNILL
Ms Lauryn Hill with special guest Nas: The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill 20th Anniversary Tour / Ticketpro Dome, Johannesburg
This is a show that had to overcome a few perception issues even before the artists involved arrived in the country, as evidenced by a tweet from Hill just a couple of days before the show on 2 February, in which she responds to doubts communicated to her about her (and Nas) actually making it to Johannesburg to play. That’s down to some previous engagements around the world where audiences were disappointed by no-shows or late arrivals, but happily, it was a concern that was repudiated on this occasion.
In a Ticketpro Dome set up in a new conformation that involves half of an extended golden circle area being seated and a number of raked bleachers pulled forward to give the huge room a more intimate feel, fans were entertained before and between sets by South African DJ Chris Beats and Hill’s touring party member DJ Reborn respectively. Their efforts helped make the time that passed while the crew tweaked stage layouts and the featured artists prepared themselves pass more pleasantly, with parts of the crowd dancing and singing as much to that recorded material as they did to the live performances.
Nas, as one of the more successful and highly regarded rappers in history, is a less flashy individual than many might expect. His performance framework is simple: DJ Green Lantern on decks, drummer and singer Eddie Cole (yes, from that musical Cole family) and the rapper up front, supported by some dramatic visuals projected on the screens behind them. What is impressive in the way they perform is the precision with which the digital and analogue aspects of the show line up, and the understanding between the trio that allows them to segue seamlessly from one track to another for long periods, never dipping in the energy they project.
The sound in the Dome is not crisp enough to allow for full appreciation of Nas’ lyrics if you don’t know them, but the Johannesburg crowd were a knowledgeable bunch and joined in vociferously with every track, each propelled by a thundering rhythm track that could be felt in the gut. Ultimately, Nas’ set is a package of impressive polish that puts to bed any argument about rappers not putting in as much effort as large rock acts or similar (because of the programmed beats and so on).
Hill was preceded onstage by her backing band – a keyboard player, a bassist, a guitarist, three statuesque backing singers and powerful drummer George “Spanky” McCurdy, whose gospel roots are evident in the segments of the arrangements of Hill’s songs where that genre is most evident. The nature of the tour – a celebration of a famous and cherished album – suggests that there wouldn’t be too much inventiveness on show for fear of alienating fans who love the originals. However, Hill’s level of musicality allows her, when she is in the mood, to recreate her best work in a way that leaves it recognisable but adds new muscle or light and shade.
It is about what Hill wants. That much is clear from the active way in which she directs the band during each song, an arm wave indicating less intensity from the keyboards, more of a build-up from the drums, dead quiet for a short vocal-only interlude or any other combination of ideas that don’t seem to be set in stone, necessarily.
The devotion of the crowd is such that each track – not just the singles and major hits – is met with equal enthusiasm and regular mass singalongs. Some songs have arrangements that give them a sound that’s more hip hop than the original’s soul – there’s very little that’s smooth and laid-back, which a song like Everything Is Everything could be if that was the intent. A cover of Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You is cleverly reworked to show off the skills of the musicians and the Fugees’ hit Killing Me Softly With His Song is included near the end of the show, even though it was not on the album the tour is named for.
Hill, as hoped for, turns in an intense performance, her soul, anger and passion evident in the sound and delivery of her vocals. And while there is some activism in the inter-song banter, there is also some lightness, and evidence of some good research being done ahead of her arrival in Johannesburg – including the singer’s ability to pronounce “Xhosa” better than a huge number of South Africans.
Between Nas and Hill, this was a concert that went on for over three hours and underlined the contribution both artists have made to hip hop and, in Hill’s case, neo-soul – and all of this without expecting reputation alone to do the job or get the intended message across. Highlighting a decades-old album makes this unavoidably a heritage tour of sorts, but there’s no sense at all of either performer being anything close to a spent force. Politics and punctuality fears aside, this is still a show, and The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill still an album, that has much to teach other performers and to inspire fans.