Lauryn Hill and the Fugees Were on Fire (Even If They Weren't on Time) in Toronto

Scotiabank Arena, October 26

With DJ Reborn

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Oct 27, 2023

It was a calculated risk to take Toronto's underfunded, overextended transit system to see Lauryn Hill in concert, but I did so in understanding the likelihood that we would both be a bit later than expected. Not only was I interested in celebrating 25 years of 1998's undisputed classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and a reunion of Fugees, her hip-hop trio with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, but I felt it important to experience the artist's approach to live performance that has infuriated ticketholders for just shy of a decade.
In recent years, Hill has been criticized, if not piled on, by her audience for lateness in starting shows, and as a result, allegedly rushing performances of "unrecognizable" versions of her own songs. For every defender like Talib Kweli, who argued in a 2014 essay that Hill is "not an iPod nor is she a trained monkey," there is a detractor like Robert Glasper, who took things further in 2018 alleging that the artist was stealing music and mistreating her accompanists. That latter year, Hill responded to those claims in an essay of her own, chalking up the lateness to an "element of perfectionism," explaining how it "isn't because I don't respect my fans or their time, but the contrary. It can be argued that I care too much, and insist on things being right."
Continuing to pack out arenas in 2023, Hill's concertgoers fully understand this risk. At Scotiabank Arena at 8 p.m., an hour after doors opened, smoke machines blew test puffs as stagehands taped setlists around the artist's elaborate stage, laid out for a brass section, string section, a pair of percussionists, backing vocalists and guitar, bass, and keyboard players to join her. From my seat, the most impatient anyone got in the early going saw some frantic Googling of "does Lauryn Hill start on time" between reminiscing about the Columbia House CD club and "when I used to smoke weed." Set times posted by the venue slotted Hill at 8:30 p.m., with an asterisk noting how all times were subject to change.

DJ Reborn, Hill's tour selector, took the stage a full hour and twenty minutes after her own posted time to both enthusiastically prime the audience with their favourites and do some light crowd work: "When you see me onstage, you know Lauryn's up next." Not only did her energetic set span hip-hop's 50-year history, but classic soul, dancehall, afrobeats and amapiano were also in the mix as the crowd grooved and tried their best not to watch the clock. Spinning for just shy of an hour, Reborn announced as Hill's strings, horns and backing vocalists filed onstage, "Toronto, the Queen is right behind us!"
Beyond the live reputation, another layer of intrigue came with Hill postponing a US performance earlier in the week on doctor's orders, picking the tour up again in Toronto after resting her voice a few days. Of course, vocal talents like hers don't dissipate entirely in sickness, and she remained tuneful through the expressive chorus of "Everything Is Everything" and in sliding around her falsetto range on "When It Hurts So Bad," asking the crowd if they could hear her clearly through a slight cold.
Vocally, it took Hill a few songs to settle in, her commanding raps a highlight of "Final Hour" and "Lost Ones" as she gestured to her crowd to get up and move in rhythm. For "To Zion," she didn't shy away from arpeggiated triplets made all the richer by her trio of vocalists, while a grounding melody sung by the ensemble during "I Used to Love Him" allowed Hill to expressively glide through a scale in head voice. Careful to never forcefully push her ailing voice to cracking precipice, her performance of Miseducation's title track was a sound fit in a more comfortable register, the final line of the song's chorus delivered with palpable emotion.
Though Hill's solo set didn't expressly feel or sound rushed, there was barely a moment left to breathe between songs until "Doo Wop (That Thing)," which she and her band expanded to follow a number of different musical directions. After sharing with the audience how the biggest hit from Miseducation had in fact come from an education provided by formative years of listening to 7-inch records, Hill and her band stayed true to the recording in the first verse and chorus, before dressing the song in more modern rap sonics for its second verse.
As the song's a capella vocal break was sung, the band slowed things down to remind the audience of how the moment was prominently sampled by Drake for 2014 loosie "Draft Day." "Did Toronto's own drop something on this beat? Is this your guy?" Hill asked the crowd in a fashion that would have one believe the hometown hero would leap from the side stage any second. Instead, Hill's son YG Marley joined the party to perform a pair of reggae-leaning tracks of his own, and was soon asked by his doting mother to bust out some jersey club dance moves as the pair of drummers knocked out an accompanying rhythm. Hammering home her musical connection to Toronto's megastar, Hill ad-libbed to Drake's "Nice for What" — its "Ex-Factor"-sampling beat filled out nicely by live cymbals and a warm synth pad — in telling the audience to hang tight for what was coming next before "Doo Wop" played her off one final time.

The evening's energy reached its peak upon the Fugees set, getting underway around 11 p.m. After Hill led off "Vocab" with her effortlessly smooth verse, Wyclef Jean bounded onstage with a message: "They're holding Pras at the border, but we ain't gonna stop! Go on y'all Twitter after the show and tweet 'Free Pras'." While one member down, Hill and Jean still succeeded in giving Toronto a reunion to remember, visibly feeding off one another's energy trading evocative verses on "How Many Mics," and toasting and rapping with fervour on "Zealots" amid a sea of cellphone lights 

Jean — who had ostensibly been charging up backstage, if not working the phones to get Pras into the country — was a sparkplug, amping up the arena in picking up a Rastafarian-hued, Louis Vuitton-branded Strat to lead a cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." Such spiritedness carried forward to "Killing Me Softly," Hill's vocal performance a highlight despite being under the weather. Now ready to leave it all onstage, pushing her voice in delivering the hook of "Ready or Not," Jean hopped into general admission to rap from the crowd, tailed across the floor by security as he propped himself up on guardrails for a better view. Even after bringing the house down with "Fu-Gee-La," it was as if neither Fugee wanted the evening to end. "I got a remix for y'all," Jean shared before looking offstage to realize, "Oh, we ain't got time?" Instead, the reggae rework of the final song played everyone out just before the stroke of midnight, Jean acting as parade leader in winding down the evening: "I've been to Caribana — don't play with me!"
There were moments during the evening where Hill's video board displayed a quote of her own: "This life is a process of learning." In letting go of expectations, a takeaway for the Toronto audience is that few will ever do it — onstage or in-studio, for better or worse — like she has.

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