Nas and Ms. Lauryn Hill Do the Classics Their Way In Sugar Land

The great curiosity about Ms. Lauryn Hill these days is how her fans react to the constantly shifting arrangements of her beloved hits.
The great curiosity about Ms. Lauryn Hill these days is how her fans react to the constantly shifting arrangements of her beloved hits. Photo by Marco Torres
The PowerNomics Tour
Feat. Nas, Ms. Lauryn Hill
Smart Financial Center
September 27, 2017

The mystery of iniquity in regards to a Ms. Lauryn Hill set centers around time. Not just her time, your time. One of the more tongue-in-cheek totems in regards to her career in 2017 revolves around her promptness for shows. There is of course a precedent, the five-hour long debacle of a wait at House of Blues a few years ago that ruined many a date night. Wednesday, fans teased one another on social media thinking that Hill, the co-headliner of the PowerNomics tour with Nas, wouldn’t even show up. It’s a sullen concept to believe but fans have proven time and again that if they aren’t happy with you, there’s only so long they'll cape for your genius.

This time, much to the chagrin of many, Ms. Lauryn Hill did indeed take the stage on time. Following a lengthy DJ set from Nas’ tour DJ Green Lantern and others, she walked out onto the Smart Financial Center stage and addressed it as a cathedral for music. Given how the arena is set up with sloping ramps and a theater space that feels more like a megachurch, Hill acted accordingly.

Twenty-four hours prior, KISS happened to turn this church dead in the middle of Sugar Land into a teleportation device for ‘70s rock, where facepaint and long tongues once scared conservatives and parental groups who thought the nation's children were becoming devil worshippers. SFC had an entirely different crowd on Wednesday, and Hill had a different approach in mind. Prideful, the 42-year-old singer did what she had done on prior stops to Houston: she played the hits “her way.”

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By the time Hill played some recognizable hits, many fans had already exited the building.
Photo by Marco Torres
Her way, for those unaware, means Ms. Lauryn Hill will re-create the classic string-and-drum thump that is “Everything Is Everything” and speed it up to a new cadence and rhythm. “Ex-Factor,” one of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill's biggest hits, can be strewn into something leaner, losing all the gravitas of the original. Heartbreak and pain thickened around the song's soul, making for a tough, lighter-in-the-sky singalong. Hill’s version on Wednesday night, the first one anyway, found pieces of that energy but they were too scattered to connect with the audience. Throughout the night, Hill directed her band from the stage, either letting the audience know that everything was to seem like a jam session or that rehearsal at times didn't matter. As long as the vocals were there, Hill felt fine.

Most of the Miseducation tracks got treated this way, causing some fans to exit complaining. I knew it would happen but still, many inside Smart Financial Center hung around with Lauryn. It probably hurt the fans who left to know after they made their exits, she explained why she performed her classics the way she did. “They don’t make me feel creative like that,” she said.

It was respectable and she even made an amicable compromise; her final five songs of the night were all done in their original key. “To Zion,” the ode to her baby boy that became a crux of her lauded 1998 debut, felt like the album version. When the keys and melody from “Ex-Factor” waded through the air a second time, it was the tried and true version, right down to the ad-libs and spirited guitar. The great curiosity about Ms. Lauryn Hill these days is not whether or not she’ll release another studio album. It is not inquiring whether or not she’ll show up on time. It is simply a matter of whether or not fans will come to grips with the fact that Hill, unlike many generational acts whose biggest hits are now more than a decade prior, chooses to spice them up rather than keep people stuck in a nostalgia act.

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Nas knows he's in a celebration of life these days.
Photo by Marco Torres
By comparison, her co-headliner Nas knows he’s in a celebration of life these days. He recently turned 44 but still looks 27, one of the ‘90s' more underrated sex symbols because he never touted himself as one. “I just might move to Houston,” he told the crowd Wednesday night, much to the delight of the women in attendance, some of whom rapped heady lyrical constructs like “The Message” from It Was Written as if they wrote them.

I’ve witnessed Nas in concert on three separate occasions now. One, and arguably his best show ever, was in Austin for SXSW 2012 as he performed Illmatic in its entirety along with a few cuts from his then-upcoming album, Life Is Good. The second time was later that year, when he and Lauryn Hill first did a joint tour. Dipped in Gucci from head to toe, he looked like a throwback on Wednesday but his ideas and performance skills were as modern as ever.

Whatever flack Nas got for his poor choice in beats found love with the Sugar Land crowd. Tracks like “U Owe Me” from Nastradamus and “Oochie Wally” kept people dancing, a decade or more after I side-eyed them both as pitiful attempts to be commercial. I’d grown up by then, of course, and I dare you to not play either track in a public setting in 2017 and watch people still dance for a little bit. His set list stayed in a 12-year sweet spot from his all-timer of debut rap album Illmatic to 2006's Hip-Hop Is Dead, due to the fact that songs like "Cherry Wine," his duet with Amy Winehouse, got cut from the show.

Nas’ live performance is effortlessly cool these days. He allows gaps in verses for fans to fill in, and plays opera music and Spanish fly to lead in his own records. He may not have a better energy record than “Hate Me Now,” led in of course by the biblical sounds of Carl Orff's “O Fortuna.” Only thing missing? Puff Daddy’s super mink coat from last year’s Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour.

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"The world is ours," Nas told the crowd. "It don’t belong to no punk political leaders. It belongs to the people.”
Photo by Marco Torres
As both Nas and Hill took the stage to perform his biggest hit, “If I Ruled the World,” the concept of the PowerNomics tour made sense. PowerNomics, a concept introduced by Dr. Claud Anderson in his book, is a plan intended to produce economic enfranchisement for America's African-American population. Throughout the night, images of black leaders, black bodies and faces were displayed on the projection behind the performers, adding a heavy hue over the evening. Taking over the world via financial freedom is something Nas has been rapping about for years and on Wednesday night, he put his words into action. “We must do something about what’s going on,” he said. “Every time we wake up, we do so by God’s design. The world is ours, it don’t belong to no punk political leaders. It belongs to the people.”

Fight the power, then.

Personal Bias: Lauryn doing Pras’ verses on “Ready or Not” > Pras doing his verses on “Ready Or Not”

Overheard In the Crowd: “Don’t nobody wanna hear that sh*t!” — someone who wasn’t here for the “remixes” of Hill classics as she walked out of the building.

The Crowd: You could have ‘80s babies who looked like Cardi B with braces. You could have old heads who constantly broke their necks and turned to look at the women in tight dresses and cleavage hugging tops. You could be a toddler whose very first concert was a Nas show before he tuckered out. It didn’t matter, the PowerNomics tour had room for you. Shout-out to the guy who made sure to take video of his date dancing all night as he treated her like he was her number one fan.

Random Notebook Dump: The last time I went to Smart Financial Center, it was for a Super Bowl party thrown by Maxim. The parking situation? Great. Smooth even. By comparison, Wednesday night felt like Armageddon, to the point where I suggested out loud that everyone just park in Town Center in Sugar Land and just Uber or Lyft their way to the venue. SFC may be a young venue but it definitely has all the parking warts of a demolition derby.

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The PowerNomics Tour had room for everyone on Wednesday.
Photo by Marco Torres
Black Republican
Got Urself A..
Get Down
I Can
Nas Is Like
Hot Boyz (Remix)
Oochie Wally
U Owe Me
It Ain’t Hard To Tell
One Mic
NY State of Mind
The World Is Yours
The Message
Street Dreams
Hate Me Now
Made You Look
If I Ruled The World (w/ Ms. Lauryn Hill)

Everything Is Everything
Final Hour
Lost Ones
How Many Mics
Zealots / Manifest
Ready Or Not
Killing Me Softly (With His Song)
To Zion (Album Version)
Ex-Factor (Album Version)
Doo Wop (That Thing)
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell