Fuck Johnny Rotten and GG Allin: No musical artist has ever shown as much contempt for their audience as Lauryn Hill. This contempt has illuminated every phase of her post-Fugees solo career, commencing with 1998's legendary The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that world-conquering combo platter of hiphop, R&B, gospel, and pop that sold eight million copies, dominated the Grammys (winning album of the year), landed Hill on the cover of Time, Esquire, and Teen People, and effectively broke her brain.
It's helpful to remember that even the crowd-pleasing Miseducation bristled with barely concealed contempt for its listeners. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" found Hill denouncing her core urban audience as a bunch of godless hoochies and deadbeat dads (and scoring her first number-one pop single), while the show-opening "Lost Ones" lambastes Hill's fellow Fugee and former lover Wyclef Jean en route to damning all humanity to hell: "Every man want to act like he's exempt/When him need to get down on his knees and repent/Can't slick talk on the day of judgment/Your movement's similar to a serpent... Hypocrites always want to play innocent/Always want to take it to the full-out extent/Always want to make it seem like good intent/Never want to face it when it's time for punishment."
At the time, it was easy to read such denunciations as nouveau protest songs, ballsy social critique with an Old Testament flava. But Hill's 2002 release MTV Unplugged 2.0 made it clear: Lauryn Hill hates this godless lie we call reality and isn't above telling the world about it over two discs of chorus-free "songs" that ramble on for upwards of nine minutes each and feature such catchy refrains as "Turn from selfish motivation/So iniquity will not cause your demise." Back from the exile she self-imposed after the brain-breaking success of Miseducation (on which Hill warned the world to repent or die and was rewarded with adoration and wealth), Hill creates the whole of Unplugged 2.0's 100 minutes by herself, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, which she strums with rudimentary skill. "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need," says Hill during one of her many lengthy between-song rambles. The reality of Unplugged 2.0 wasn't pretty, capturing an artist in open revolt against the people and talents that made her a star, and teetering on the edge of what us godless world-dwellers call sanity. Numerous songs find Hill pillorying such villains as empty fornicators, adulterers, and bisexuals, while the nearly 10-minute "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" ends with Hill chanting "merciful, wonderful God" until she breaks down in sobs.
Unplugged 2.0 set the crazy bar shockingly high, and if Hill's never quite topped it, she's kept trying. The would-be Fugees reunion of 2005 was derailed by Hill's chronic lateness and erratic demands ("Lauryn needs help," said Wyclef Jean), and the solo shows she's dabbled in for years have suffered from the same. On more than one occasion, Hill has kept audiences waiting for over three hours, only to deliver an abbreviated set filled with unrecognizable scat-chant songs and lame excuses. (One three-hour delay was blamed on Hill's improperly dried nail polish. "How you gonna win when you ain't right within?" indeed.) Even with her fan base dwindling, Hill has kept up the contempt, charging fans $15 for online access to her new music video, which could be viewed exactly three times before access expired.
Now here we are in 2011, and Ms. Lauryn Hill is coming to perform at the Showbox Sodo. Reviews of recent shows have ranged from very enthusiastic (the Riverfront Times called the Saint Louis show "incredible," praising Hill's "precision and snarling intensity") to horrified (numerous reviews cite crushing lateness and a poisonous chemistry between Hill and her band, which is often stranded onstage while Ms. Hill gets herself together). As for the quality of the Showbox show, it's ultimately in God's hands. "I know that God doesn't lie, and that He knows how to talk to the hearts of people better than anyone else," as Hill told her MTV Unplugged audience. "Whatever He relates to whomever's listening, that's what's supposed to be understood at that time, so it's all good." Wear comfortable shoes and bring a book.