Time was, the former frontwoman of a beloved urban trio could put out a critically adored smash-hit concept album that was deeply informed by both feminism and blackness and it could actually win a Grammy for album of the year. But if Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” ultimately couldn’t duplicate the journey that “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill” successfully navigated nearly 20 years ago, the intervening decades have been a frustrating aftermath for the onetime Fugee, who’s struggled to find her footing following her lone solo album’s blazing moment at the top.
You wouldn’t have known it from the way Hill shook the rafters Thursday at the Boch Center Wang Theatre. She had all the vitality of a still-vibrant creative force, even if the setlist betrayed her legacy-act status.
That was hard to deny. Hill has recorded only a sparse handful of singles this century, and she played none of them Thursday. But she attacked the material fiercely, often performing her songs in ways dramatically different from the original recordings. Ditching the neo-soul that informed “Miseducation,” she seemed to instead lean heavily on the twin pillars of “Bitches Brew”-style fusion and the polyrhythmic Afrobeat of Fela Kuti.
And she had no problem incorporating both or even trading one for the other within a single song. “Lost Ones” switched midway from bombastic funk-rock to a fast, chicken-scratch rhythm, with a final chaser of staccato strings ticking off a clockwork beat. And a fiery “Everything Is Everything” incorporated horns blasting, laser whooshes, and a guitar line twirling in tight circles.
Even slower songs packed a punch. The gliding “Ready Or Not” didn’t burst like the rest but still expanded gradually, while the chilled-out “Vocab” and the smooth jazz-pop of Sade’s “Your Love Is King” and “The Sweetest Taboo” nonetheless had a kick to them.
In command of all of it was a vibrantly animated Hill, whose reedy, stentorian voice commanded authority and hinted at a weariness behind it. Her words tumbled out in a breathless torrent during “Final Hour,” while “Ex-Factor” was agonized. With so much of “Miseducation” devoted to consciousness-raising, it was thrilling to see Hill still up to the task. The shame lay in her job remaining unfinished after so long.
Opener Little Simz rapped with an endearing mix of urgency, gratitude, and a call for understanding. She was hard not to root for, especially when taking a seemingly unscripted moment to gawk at the size of the theater.
With Little Simz
At Boch Center Wang Theatre, Feb. 23Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc