It has been 16 years since Lauryn Hill released her last studio album of new material, the five-Grammy-winning "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," and that fusion of soul and hip-hop was so impressive that her fans have been waiting for a true follow-up ever since. They were out in force for the Summer Spirit Festival at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday night despite a decade and a half of half-baked live and compilation albums and underwhelming shows, hoping against hope that the ex-Fugees singer could once again rise to the occasion.
Hill strolled on stage in a black, flat-brim hat, a purple jacket, ankle-length skirt-pants and two white Christmas-bulb earrings. She looked good and sounded better, hitting the notes on the opening Bob Marley cover, 'Soul Rebel,' with precision and bite. She delivered her machine-gun rapping on 'Final Hour' with the same focus. All that was missing was some reason for listeners to care about what she was singing.
She seemed strangely dissociated from not only the audience but also her own band. She remained rooted to the same spot at the microphone with an unchanging deadpan look on her face. She flattened out the melodic hook on 'Killing Me Softly' till it was barely recognizable. Her band—rock quartet, three R&B singers and a DJ—became a loud, muddy rumble that washed away her lyrics and failed to connect with her in any way.
Hill's set suffered even more because it followed one of the year's most electrifying sets in any venue on any date. Like a young James Brown or Prince, Janelle Monáe was a tornado of dancing, shouting, spinning and singing from the moment she burst out of a white straitjacket till she slinked off stage in a black cape an hour later. She has only grown in confidence and chops since her remarkable show at the Lincoln Theatre last October.
Wearing a white shirt and slacks highlighted by black boots, black suspenders and a black bow tie, she united the '80s funk of 'Givin Em What They Love' and the '40s swing of 'Dance Apocalyptic' with the same ankle-crossing dance moves and siren soprano. Her sci-fi lyrics gave songs such as 'Electric Lady' and 'Tightrope' a futuristic edge, and you could hear the words because her band played with a crisp clarity and a rocking unison so different from most acts at the festival.
Monáe sang Brown's classic single, 'I Feel Good,' with all the percussive yelps and acrobatic moves the song requires. Best of all was 'Primetime,' the decade's best R&B ballad thus far, and Monáe outstripped the studio version with a dramatic version that built from a quiet reverie to a cathartic climax, thanks to the help from her disciplined, gifted musicians.
The festival's other standout set came from Meshell Ndegeocello, whose bass locked in with the drums so skillfully that the guitarist and keyboardist were free to create spacey improvisations. Tying the two halves together was her voice, an understated alto that was rooted in earthy facts even as it resonated with universal implications. She crossed the jazz-funk bridge from the funk side of the river but she made it to the other side. She began with two Nina Simone covers and then refashioned some of her older songs the same way.
Also appearing at the festival were the Prince-like Roman Gianarthur (Monáe's studio guitarist), the John Legend-like George Tandy Jr., the Bad Brains-like RDGLDGRN, D.C. loverman crooner Raheem DeVaughn, the underrated hip-hop legend Talib Kweli and a showdown between two D.C. go-go groups: the Junkyard Band and the Backyard Band.