Lauryn Hill…The Evolution of an American Soul Singer

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ATLANTA, Ga.—Lauryn Hill is one of today’s great soul singers.

That’s a point that’s clearly evident when listening to her recorded renditions.

Live, in-concert? Now, that’s another story.

During her recent Atlanta show at the Center Stage Theater, she provided her fans with a lengthy 90-minute performance—displaying her distinctive style and stage persona—a sexy blend of African and Reggae roots, mixed with a tad of ‘80s grunge and straight-up hip-hop, add a pinch of cool jazz, ala Nina Simone and let’s call it neosoul. Better yet, call it Laurynsoul.

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LAURYN HILL

Though vocally gifted, her melodic gifts failed to shine on this wind-chilled March 31 night—mainly because her voice was masked by a keyboard/guitar-driven band that was simply put, too loud.

To be fair, place the blame on her sound engineers for the mishap.

Fortunately, her pol­y­rhythmic drummer kept the 5-piece group in-synch, on-point and tightly knit, even though an electric bassist was sorely missing from the band.

On the positive tip, Lauryn’s vocals were best revealed on ballads when the band was forced to a volume that accentuated her soulful delivery, specifically, on her popular cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” a tune recorded with her former group, The Fugees. Other Fugee crowd-pleasers this night were “Ready Or Not,” “Ooh La La,” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and “Turn the Lights Down Low.” Frankie Vallie’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was another welcomed cover.

Frankly, the recorded Lauryn Hill is a much sweeter experience than the live-performance version.

Her renditions of tunes from her Grammy Award-winning LP, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,’ were anticipated and obviously struck a chord with her many fans.

Namely, “Doo Wop (That Thang),” “Sweetest Thing” and “Ex-Factor” received tremendous applause and response. Sadly omitted from the set-list was the sultry “Nothing Even Matters,” the DeAngelo duet.

This show was the second of two consecutive Atlanta gigs. The March 30 set was a sold-out, rescheduled date from a January show which drew complaints about her tardiness and for re-mixing her hits into unfamiliar formats. She was obviously cognizant in reconnecting with ATL fans. Hopefully, next time, she’ll pull out the acoustic guitar and display her six-string talents too.

After a nearly 10-year hiatus from the industry, Lauryn has developed a reputation reminiscent of sixties icon, Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone. Tardy and unreliable are two adjectives that arise. So far, her good image remains intact.

For this reviewer—having witnessed the likes of some of soul music’s premier icons like Aretha, Chaka, Patti, Gladys, Tina, Niece Williams and Anita Baker, it’s impossible to neatly fit Lauryn into any one category. Instead, while she reflects the evolution of her predecessors and incorporates the physical antics of Whitney and Mary J—the two singers who are closer to her generation, she’s in a class of her own.

Speaking of Gladys Knight, on occasion it’s been suggested that physically, Lauryn resembles a young Gladys and even has the throaty-soulful resonant vocal chops to match. For a good example, listen to Gladys’ intro line on her classic cover of the Barbra Streisand hit, “The Way We Were.”

Lauryn bites a piece of Gladys’ intro to create her own intro stanza on “Ex-Factor.”

The lyrical similarity could be coincidental. Probably not! Kindred souls? Probably so.

Michelle Mykey Bell, an LA-based producer-lyricist, said the Lauryn Hill Tour is widely anticipated mainly because: “After the success of ‘Miseducation’ and subsequent awards, Lauryn never toured. So, her fans never got a chance to watch her perform the hits. It’s great that’s she’s providing her fans a rare chance to see a legend at work.”

Longtime Lauryn fan and Atlanta music critic Neecy Henderson described the show as a brilliant work of art, epitomized by Lauryn’s soulful vocals, funky hip-hop lyrics and unique stage presence.

“Her background trio reminded me of Marley’s I-Threes. Their harmony was impeccable,” said Henderson who first saw the East Orange, N.J.-born Lauryn perform on TV’s ‘Showtime At The Apollo’ as a pre-teen contestant.

“She is truly one of the great ones. A bohemian genius,” Henderson added.

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