The “genius recluse returns to society” arc is probably our favorite pop-music narrative, so it is with great interest that we have been monitoring Lauryn Hill’s reemergence. Her initial foray, during this summer’s Rock the Bells mini-tour, was a bit shaky, with some fans vocally displeased at how Hill was reimagining her classics live and others wondering if her once pristine voice hasn’t aged well. When she announced a full batch of tour dates, we figured we’d be in for some more drama sooner or later. It turned out to be sooner: On the first stop of the tour, at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg last night, doors were at 8 p.m. but Hill didn’t show up until midnight, and the crowd didn’t take it so well. The Times has a breakdown, plus a crucial video of Hill gently chastising her audience:
Two fans in the front row hand-wrote signs: “You Just Lost One,” “This Is Insulting.” One of the keyboard players taped a reply on his kit: “I Was on Time.” When Ms. Hill finally took the stage a little after midnight — a few minutes after arriving at the club and getting carried over piles of snow on the street, one witness reported — she was primed for a fight. “Don’t do that. That’s disrespectful,” she told the fans with the signs, motioning with her finger to the exit at the back of the room, where she suggested they go. To the crowd she was both thankful and indignantly apologetic. “I spent my entire 20s sacrificing my life to give you love. So when I hear people complain, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “I personally know I’m worth the wait.” … After her first song, a lithe, pretty cover of Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah,” she finally yanked the sign off her keyboard player’s kit, telling him: “You trying to escape the bottles and the cups. Next time you take it, you take it like a man. We in this together, brother.”
In the video, it’s clear Hill is walking that fine line between standing up to a surly audience and losing them altogether. Considering this is a tiny venue filled with people dedicated enough to the cause they managed to finagle their way into the coveted event, it’s fairly mind-boggling it had to come to this at all. If Hill had followed the little tirade with an hour and a half of faithful recreations of her classic tunes, it would have been a blip on the radar. But instead she maintained her unique angle, tweaking and modifying her catalogue as she sees fit. To her great credit, she’s obviously doing things her way. It may take a while for everyone else to catch up.