Bright white spotlights behind the band are pointed back out at the crowd illuminating a field of hands raised in the air, the video screen is covered with footage of glittering, metallic confetti, and Nas is ripping through a triumphant version of "If I Ruled the World." He's feeling it as much as the crowd, saying, "This shit is crazy. This is beautiful. It's amazing being here." It's startling to realize -- in a sudden rush of reality -- that Lauryn Hill has yet to take the stage. The night was still young.
For over an hour Nas masterfully mingles new material and classics for a set that climbed to operatic moments of greatness -- epic swells of sound that emphasize the sharpness of his lines. Backed by a five piece band and DJ Green Lantern, there's an arena rock feel -- it's a fine line between head bobbing and head banging -- especially once he starts into material off Illmatic, including "NY State of Mind," "Ain't Hard to Tell," and "The World is Yours." During the latter, he flips the line about "presidents to represent me" to include an Obama reference, which draws a round of cheers.
Throughout the set, he peppers in remixes, re-imaginings and quick cuts. From the heady, narrative flow of "Queens Story," the band changes gears to James Brown. Nas asks them to "make it hip hop," and suddenly they've flipped "Funky Good Time" into the beat for "Nastradamus." The veteran MC makes the most of the live band, cutting between songs, coaxing on solos and rearranging tunes. His delivery is on point and only occasionally does he even have assistance (no hype man, just the occasional fill-in for an end line from the DJ or a backup singer). His lack of entourage on stage adds an extra layer of meaning to his performance of "One Mic," which begins minimally, the room dark except Nas in a lone spotlight and the band quiet except the resonating kick drum, and then builds to a massive close.
The craziest part is that it's just shy of 10 p.m. when he leaves the stage. Nas and Ms. Hill might be "co-headlining" this tour, but someone still has to go first. It's a huge start to the evening. The bar is raised and anticipation builds. An hour later, following a complete changeover of band equipment, the room is seemingly packed to capacity and after forty minutes of a playlist at low volume, the second DJ is dropping a set of guaranteed party hits -- Sean Paul, DMX, Fatman Scoop, etc.
Keep reading for review and photos of Lauryn Hill's set, plus Critic's Notebook and Setlists
The energy is turned up when Ms. Hill's band takes the stage and jumps into an uptempo, prog-rock-esque riff. The set doesn't just start, it blasts off. Immediately evident is the musicianship of the six-piece band and three backup singers who are there to support. Ms. Hill takes the stage to massive cheering from the crowd and hype chanting from the DJ, who extends her introduction into something reminiscent of Latin American TV anchors shouting "goooaaaal" during a close soccer/futbol match. The riff transforms into an uptempo reggae joint over which she is suddenly tearing through a new arrangement of "Killing Me Softly," transforming it into a raucous introduction and a harbinger for the rest of her set.
While she disappeared from music for several years, what's clear isn't that Lauryn Hill has been gone, but that no one has been able to take her place. Her presence is dynamic -- simultaneously gruff and feminine -- and her abilities are absolutely undiminished. From demonstrations of her powerful range singing to patois-laced toasting to straight up ripping verses, the elevation isn't an issue for her breath control. She is a force on stage, and not just vocally. While commanding the spotlight, she is simultaneously leading the band, using hand signals to extend bridges, accelerate the tempo or push her back up singers into harmonic exploration.
The band offers her the opportunity to jump across styles effortlessly. "Superstar" emerges from an afro-beat-inspired introduction before giving way to a hard rocking version that, in turn, segues to an uptempo version of Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle." Much of the material is pushed to new limits with new arrangements, and the energy is relentless. When the wave finally crashes, Ms. Hill is introducing her new song, "Black Rage," an astute socio-political piece that flips the old standard "My Favorite Things" from the The Sound of Music. "I wrote a song called Black Rage," she tells the crowd. "I want you to hear the lyrics."
It starts out like a poem, and then the band drops in behind her as she alternates singing and explaining the lyrics, which touches on economics, culture and injustice, from the transportation of slaves to the inequities of the modern era. It's deep. It may be too deep for some, and the crowd begins to thin. Maybe it's that some folks only came out for Nas. Maybe folks started partying a little too early and couldn't hang through midnight. Maybe some people didn't expected to hear anything but the hits. Or maybe the new arrangements were innovative enough to throw off casual fans and the unadventurous. But whatever the reason, it boggles the mind that they wouldn't give her more respect only halfway through her set.
Despite the exodus, Hill and the band are unperturbed. In fact, she seems to take it upon herself to right the ship. "How many Fugees fans do we have in the house," she asks, about to push herself and the band harder, extending songs for solos and attempting to whip the crowd back into its frenzied state. Dropping "How Many Mics" and the timeless "Fugee La" are both phenomenal, although they are so huge that every song begins to feel like it's a finale. The rendition of 'Ready or Not" is an amped up rock-funk fusion that arrives via musical trails blazed by Sly Stone and/or Stax Records.
Following a slower version of "Killing Me Softly," coming full circle from the start of the show, Hill returns to stage with only an acoustic guitar, sending off the band. She delivers and intimate rendition of "Turn the Lights Down Low" that draws everyone in. With the remaining audience fully engaged once again, she hustles the band back out for two last songs, and closes the night with the 1998-defining jam "Doo Wop (That Thing)." Those with the patience/intelligence/endurance to stay were graced with an incredible performance.
Keep reading for Critic's Notebook and Setlists
Personal Bias: Nas completely surpassed any expectations I had -- and I was already a Nas fan.
Random Detail: I saw a fight break out on the east mezzanine. One guy seemed like he was kind of holding back because the guy he was up against was smaller and sort of flailing around. Security straightened it out promptly. First time I've seen a fight at a show in quite a while. The last time was two hipsters with asymmetrical haircuts and skinny jeans.
By the Way: Some people were really pissed that Nas went on so early. There were people coming in around ten o'clock that expected to find the DJ was still warming everyone up, and instead discovered he was just wrapping up.
Nas Fillmore Auditorium - 11/16/12 Denver, CO
No Intro The Don Back When NY State of Mind Ain't Hard to Tell Represent The World is Yours Life's a Bitch The Message Street Dreams If I Ruled The World Daughters Can't Forget About You Queens Story James Brown "Funky Good Time" Nastradamus Nas is Like Hate Me Now Bye Baby Cherry Wine Locomotive Nasty (Remix) Accidental Murderer Queens Story Outro Smokin Get Down Stillmatic Intro Here's another classic interlude Hip Hop is Dead World is an Addiction Got Yourself a Gun Shoot 'em Up Made U Look Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight" One Mic
Lauren Hill Fillmore Auditorium - 11/16/12 Denver, CO
Killing Me Softly (dub) Everything is Everything Superstar Concrete Jungle (Bob Marley cover) Forgive Them Father Final Hour Lost Ones Ex Factor Black Rage How Many Mics Fugee La Ready or Not Killing Me Softly
Turn Your Lights Down Low (solo acoustic) Could You Be Loved (Bob Marley cover) Doo Wop (That Thing)
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