In our modern age, we build our live music experiences around “I was there” moments, like witnessing surprise guests, catching impromptu collaborations, or hearing unexpected song covers, that we can then brag about on our social media accounts. And on Thursday night at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium during Ms. Lauryn Hill’s and Nas’ performances, there was no shortage of “I was there” moments.
It would be quite easy to dissect the show into its most memorable minutes – highlights of which include Vince Staples opening as a last minute replacement for an ailing Kehlani and Hill’s life-changing cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”– but that would be a huge disservice to what was ultimately the night’s most lasting appeal. For nearly five hours, the audience at Bill Graham was treated to three singular and pivotal voices in the world of hip hop each putting their talents on full display. No one moment equals the awe-inspiring feeling of seeing Staples cede the stage to Nas, and then later seeing the oft-maligned Hill prove precisely what she’s made of in a two-hour bravado performance.
It’s debatable how many early arriving fans actually knew who Vince Staples was. Announced earlier in the day to replace Oakland’s pneumonia-plagued Kehlani, Staples began his set in low-energy fashion, staying stage center and spitting a slew of songs with few words for the crowd in-between. As the large space filled in, the vibe warmed a little. Staples embraced the shift in energy, menacing the space with renewed vigor and vitriol.
Before launching into “Hands Up” off 2014’s Hell Can Wait, he told the crowd, “If you don’t like the cops, put your hands up. If you are a cop, then you’re a cop. That’s OK.”
Nas got a bit more specific with his politics when he followed Staples onto the stage after a short intermission.
“Who here likes Donald Trump?” he asked, encouraging an inevitable wave of boos. “I voted. You all need to vote, too.”
Nas enjoyed interacting with the crowd, and did so much more than Staples and Hill who were both affable in their words but disinterested in beginning a dialogue. Nas, on the other hand, paused between tracks to ask if fans at the front of the stage needed water, before delivering a few bottles from his personal stash into the crowd.
Entering to a screen filled with flames for a high-octane rendition of “Hate Me Now” off 1999’s I Am…, Nas was everything live hip-hop is supposed to be. He played full tracks, not teases. He had the vocals mixed right with the beat, so everyone could hear him spit fervid verse after fervid verse. Running the gamut of his impressive and diverse catalog, Nas was both charming and deadly on the mic.
Rappers take note because this is how it’s done. When Nas left the stage, the crowd at Bill Graham had already gotten their money’s worth, but the main attraction was yet to come.
But when it comes to Hill, you never know which Hill you’ll get. Will it be the Hill with a history of bizarre on-stage antics? Or the one that everyone is desperately hoping for? You buy your tickets to see Hill and you pray that the person who appears before you is the one in possession of the singular voice behind 1998’s seminal The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and one-third of the legendary hip-hop group The Fugees.
Our prayers were answered.
Recently, Nicki Minaj fell to her knees upon meeting Hill, and seeing her perform on Thursday evening, I understand why. I also understand why Nas had no qualms about being her opener, a position he normally would never deign to accept were it any other artist. Hill is a rapper of the finest order and a singer of enormous magnitude. Flanked by a band that included a brass section and three back-up singers, Hill conducted her cadre with hand flourishes, living every note of her two-hour performance.
The hits were honored, including “Everything is Everything” and “Ex-Factor,” but there is no value in distinguishing the singles from the deep cuts. Every song Hill played was the song we needed – she made sure of that. Her voice was every bit the powerhouse it was when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill made waves at the Grammy’s almost a decade ago. Her flow, often delivered in stunning double-time, was breathless and stupefying. Even when Nas returned to share the stage for “If I Ruled the World,” his collaboration with Hill off 1996’s It Was Written, the emcee had the spotlight, but all eyes were still on Hill.
Before closing the evening with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill made sure to deliver one last knockout punch. I think it’s fair to say that few compliments carry more weight than saying someone did Nina Simone song justice. Hill’s cover of “Feeling Good” wasn’t justice – it was necromancy. Pitch perfect and oozing with scintillating soul, Hill brought Simone back to life with her tribute. Rarely, if ever, has one of Simone’s classics been held by more capable and deserving hands.
So yes, I was there. In total, 7,000 of us were. Sadly, the collective pictures and videos captured by the audience will tell nothing of the evening. They’ll give viewers a glimpse into a moment, perhaps even a glorious one, but they’ll never encapsulate the whole of it. You just had to be there.