For a handful of years during the mid-to-late-’90s, both Nas and Lauryn Hill were at the peak of their powers. Each released landmark debut albums (Nas’ “Illmatic” and Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”) and enjoyed enormous amounts of commercial success and critical acclaim. In the ensuing years, both would follow wildly divergent paths. Hill, in spite of her success, essentially walked away from the music business entirely, while Nas continued to produce stellar albums throughout the new millennium.
Now, the artists have finally embarked upon a long-rumored joint tour, which placed their differences in harsh relief. Swapping headlining slots from date-to-date, Nas opened Friday’s concert at the Wiltern and he did so with force, swagger and captivating precision. From the looks of things, Nas’ relationship with Hill seems to have cooled significantly over the course of this tour. There would be no collaboration during the two’s 1996 hit “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That),” and the rapper failed to make even the slightest mention of his tourmmate throughout the evening.
A swath of epileptic strobes and a rack of flashing gold lights flickered on stage, as Nas emerged to the thudding, triumphant strains of “No Introduction.” His rhymes were delivered with pinpoint accuracy, showcasing a tenacious blend of lyrical dexterity and pure emotion that consistently enraptured the sold-out theater. Classic tracks from throughout his career were chopped and spliced collage-like against one another. Clearly, under normal headlining circumstances, Nas would have spent more time delving into each song, but the rapidfire pace actually suited the material and his forceful delivery.
From the slick, Michael Jackson-referencing “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” to the smooth, resonant “Life’s a Bitch” and the hard-rocking “Hate Me Now,” Nas and his live band deftly fluctuated between a wide array of sounds and moods throughout the hour and a half set. With each track, Nas’ voice grew huskier and huskier, and by the time he reached the set-closing standout “One Mic” he could barely talk. The gutsy, self-sacrificing display was representative of an artist who seems eager to give everything he can to his fanbase.
In stark contrast, Lauryn Hill and her ragtag fusion band took the stage at around 11:15 p.m. and provided a series of baffling, mostly unrecognizable readings of “Miseducation” tracks. Performing to a densely-packed house at the beginning of her set, at least a third of the audience had filtered out by the evening’s 1 a.m. close.
It was devastatingly sad to see how truly strange and unhinged Hill had become. Though her voice still retains the power and dexterity of her youth, onstage she was a twitching, frenetic blend of eccentricity and ego. Constantly tugging at her in-ear monitors and wildly conducting her backing musicians, Hill seemed consumed by petty, insignificant details that emerged during her stage show. At one point, she reprimanded a Wiltern technician on the side of the stage; towards the end of the show she bitingly chastised her backing vocalists, abruptly cutting them off and ordering them to follow her lead.
Watching Lauryn Hill perform in 2012 is like observing some strange, Melvillean allegory. The band members are held captive — a helpless crew manning a doomed vessel — hurtling towards the inevitable abyss. The captain militaristically barks orders, lost in her own, inexplicable obsessions. As an audience member, it is nearly unbearable to observe the brutal butchering of such beautifully-written material as “Everything Is Everything” and “Ex-Factor.” For an artist who truly could have been one of the greatest of her generation, this is a fate that no one could have imagined or hoped for.