Ms. Lauryn Hill bared her soul last Wednesday at the UNO Lakefront Arena, and there was far more to the story than the time she went onstage.

ms. lauryn hill photo by steven hatley for my spilt milk
Ms. Lauryn Hill at the UNO Lakefront Arena, by Steven Hatley

Ms. Lauryn Hill’s performance last Wednesday at the UNO Lakefront Arena showed exactly why The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is widely regarded as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. The tour celebrates the 20-year anniversary of her first and only studio solo album, and after two decades, the album’s relevance has intensified.

It’s apropos that Hill’s album reached this milestone this year. Drake and Cardi B have launched a resurgence for Hill’s popularity by sampling “Ex Factor” on two of the hottest tracks of the summer, “Nice For What” and “Be Careful.” Younger, pop-driven listeners are discovering Hill through the radio, and the audience reflected Hill’s ability to speak to all generations. She hasn’t released new music in 20 years, but The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill speaks to all genders, races, and ages.

Other than a three-year stint in jail after facing charges of tax evasion, it’s unclear what Hill has been doing for the past 20 years, but that doesn’t matter. The album addresses coming to terms with power dichotomies, heartbreak, and maturing into a strong, ethical person. She brought all those feelings and more in her performance. She played the entire album and some, adding a cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” by Frankie Valli, and her own rendition of “Nice For What” by Drake.  

Hill’s allure is steeped in her mystique. She took the stage clad entirely in black. Her tutu, bedazzled long-sleeve shirt, large brim hat, and platform heels made her look like she was attending a witch’s funeral. Her voice was solemn when she introduced the album and said, “A legacy came through me and made this album. This isn’t my album; this is our album.”

While Performing “Forgive Them Father,” Hill’s voice was melted caramel, drenched in rasp, sweetness, and depth. A video montage projected images of police brutality while Hill sang, “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.” Watching one of these videos is gut churning. Watching a six-minute stream of police officers abusing African Americans while Hill coaxed the audience to forgive the powerful was jarring yet beautiful. Hill was captivating and serious, and the audience stood in an attempt to digest what exactly they were experiencing.

Moments like this capture the essence of the show. Hill was not new polished silver. She was a stained, 18th century fork with a subtle gleam. In an essay posted to Medium.com recently, Hill stated that she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being black in America. She wrote, “The expectation is for us to live with abuse, distortion, and deliberate policies, meant to outright control and contain us—like we’re not aware of our basic right to freedom. I resist and reject these ideas completely.”

Hill stood by this statement in her performance. She brought a vague sense of pain to the stage. Although she encouraged the predominantly African American audience to be empowered, her energy showed that being resilient can take a toll on your being.

She conducted the band like the crazed Beethoven himself. Hill has a vision, and the band is there solely for support. Some may consider her pointing to and addressing mistakes from her band inappropriate or distracting. However, the pianist played out of rhythm at times, and Hill was quick to bring him back. She was working her ass off on stage; it was only fair for her band to do the same.

One show goer said that she sounded like she was rehearsing, but this aspect of her performance made each track feel more personal. Hill canceled a show in Houston because she was sick, so this may be the source of the rasp in her voice. She was clearly fatigued at points, but at her best, she was a beacon of artistry. While performing “Ex Factor,” Hill broke out into a heavy scat akin to Ella Fitzgerald. She ripped notes like a machine gun.

The show was not entirely serious. Hill adapted “Final Hour” into a punk anthem. It was one of her more carefree moments of the show as she kicked her leg into the air and bounced around the stage with ease. While performing a cover of Drake’s “Nice For What,” she joked, “this ain’t Ex Factor, this is a sample / My song’s a classic, I’m the example.” Hill encouraged her band to amp up the bounce flair, asking it, “Do you know where you are?”

It’s clear that Ms. Lauryn Hill has seen pain. She brought those experiences to the concert in an open, honest way. Although she was fully clothed, Ms. Hill was naked at the UNO Lakefront Arena. Hill can be criticized by Robert for disrespecting fans, and Questlove can mock her for being a legacy artist. Comments like this don’t change the fact that Hill still has the ability to bring her honest self to the stage, tattered and soulful, mysterious and open.