Misunderstanding Lauryn Hill's G.O.A.T-ness

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Buying a ticket to a Lauryn Hill show, like tonight's at House of Blues, might mean you need to have backup evening plans ready. Or you might need to tell the babysitter you'll be home later than expected because Hill might not get there on time.

On paper, if Grammy Awards, record sales, and cultural impact are the criteria for G.O.A.T status, then Lauryn Hill is among a rarified crowd. Say her name to a casual music fan and you'll probably hear a negative response about jail, unpaid taxes, lawsuits over music credits and ex-Fugees bandmate Pras Michel.

Hill's recent two-hour performance,

Live at Brooklyn Bowl

, is available on demand through most cable providers throughout December.

Say her name to a fan of the phenomenal '90s versions of L-Boogie, and you might get an excited response that comes crashing down when talk turns to what could have been. Finally, mention her to someone from New Jersey -- full disclosure: like me -- and you might just get one reply: Lauryn is dope, one of the greatest.

Sure, she went from Time magazine's face of the hip-hop nation to the poster child for the dangers of getting too famous, too fast; at least that's the media narrative that seems to stick. If anything, there's still just a lingering disappointment in the short timeline of her original artistic output.

That's not to say that if her Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album came out today, it wouldn't find a fan base and become a monster hit all over again. With a wizened rasp shaped by growing up in the Newark, N.J. area -- think Redman, Naughty By Nature, Artifacts, Lords of the Underground, Queen Latifah and former Eminem crew The Outsidaz -- she held her own in rap ciphers alongside the best the '90s had to offer.

She even dropped a little knowledge, as this video from a public television rap show in New York in the 1990s shows, Hill has always had a kinetic energy that made her stand out, especially in this convo about race relations that resonates today. (Forward to 5:46 to really see her let loose.)

It was no Martin Luther King and Malcolm X debate, but it was the Rap City generation's closest thing to it. Later, that same B-girl would scoop up five Grammys (beating out Madonna and Shania Twain), all on the back of one incredible album.

Story continues on the next page.

"Every song on [Miseducation] is a story. Every song is communicating some sort of value or lesson learned." That's the younger generation talking about the album, now 15 years old, today. A summertime staple in Jersey back in 1998, what followed was the blessing from the likes of Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin.

By all accounts, Hill's place in the musical pantheon is solid. Done deal. But her post-MTV Unplugged era seems to leave people questioning her viability as a performer. That shouldn't be the case because very few can compete with her live show.

It's not clear how much Hill is actually making, since her show is being offered for free as part of some digital-cable plans; at least in Cleveland, where Cox is showing it free. Comcast's Xfinity has had it available to rent since last month. If premium cable outlets are carrying her two-hour concert, bringing Hill into millions of homes, then she's tapping into the same resources as every other top musician.

She's no longer known for creating new, original music. Revisiting her Fugees staples as well as her Miseducation hits are what you can expect from her these days. She still tours places like Europe and the rest of the world, and recently narrated a new documentary about colonialism in Africa.

Like Dave Chappelle, she might be a case study for how success can take people to the brink, that "too much, too fast, too soon" syndrome. But with all the emotion, incisive raps and depth put into Miseducation, listening to this classic on repeat isn't the worst musical experience in the world.

But please, judge her G.O.A.T-ness for yourself when Hill takes the stage at Houston's House of Blues tonight.

Lauryn Hill performs tonight at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 8 p.m.


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