Veteran hip-hop musician Talib Kweli writes a lengthy defense of former Fugees performer Lauryn Hill in an essay posted on Medium.com:
Titled In Defense of Lauryn Hill, overall it's an excellent, intriguing article that challenges many notions of the relationships between musicians and fans/consumers. In great part it is a rebuttal to a Medium.com blogger, Stefan Schumacher, who wrote an article that was heavily critical of Hill and her perceived lapse into eccentricity since the early 2000s.
I don't have a problem with acknowledging that Lauryn Hill is a top-notch talent, regardless of whether she has a current song on the radio or not. I agree with some points made by Kweli—and in particular I’d say that some folks (e.g., certain bloggers, music journalists, etc.) are overly reactionary. However, some certain assertions in the article didn't set well with me.
I am allowed to give a shitty show or not even show up if I feel like it. Talib Kweli, 2014
The notion casually offered by Kweli that artists are entitled to give a bad performance or "not show up at all", I’m not feeling at all. This isn’t about artists not being allowed to be human, catch colds, have family emergencies, and the various stuff that sometimes happens to folks. Fans get that. But especially if we're talking about rap/hip-hop, the phenomenon of, say, performers showing up high or drunk (or both) to the point of incoherence is not a good look and shows a lack of professionalism. I’ve been to shows where that happened and I don't respect it as a consumer, even if I like the artist/band as a fan. If there's beef with the promoters or some similar backstage drama, the folks who paid to see the show have nothing to do with that. As the cliché says, “the show must go on.” Leaving the audience “begging for more” means one thing when a powerful gig is performed. It means another thing entirely when a set is delayed a show by a half-hour or better and rigid venue managers start “shut down mode” in what is ostensibly the middle of the set. Being late—whatever the rationale—doesn’t make the consumer feel any better.
Regarding "the hits" vs. a more eclectic setlist, obviously musicians can do what they want, but keep in mind that ideally there should be a balance in presentation. There are plenty of casual fans who:
1) don't consider the artist's landmark album to be their personal bible, and thus, the artist/band is their patron saint
2) who don't follow the artist's website or daily social media
3) who don't own every LP/single beyond whatever is considered their commercial peak
4) who understandably may have a "favorite" song that they'd like to hear at a concert.
It doesn't automatically make them the obsessive "I own you!" type of fan, as exemplified in Eminem's iconic "Stan" song. Not by a longshot. Looking at the history of hip-hop, lots of people look at it as a contemporary take on folk music, "the people's music"—populist art that isn’t automatically the domain of elites. From the early block-party context of hip-hop, audience interaction has been historically part of the routine. So yes, some people are going to shout "Yo, Lauryn, do "lost ones!" during her concerts. Whether she performs it or not is totally up to her—but the notion that concert consumers are supposed to totally leave all expectations at the venue door or otherwise get labeled as whining brats? That in and of itself smacks of a certain level of arrogance and cultural elitism.
Trying to turn hip-hop into the "just shut up and listen" music (a.k.a. classical or Wynton Marsalis's take on jazz) is something that I really don’t relate to. Is that where it's at, now, particularly with—ahem—“conscious” acts? Yes, I know, most such artists hate that label, considering it too pretentious. But if that’s the case, then performers need to be aware that being reflexively self-absorbed and condescending to fans is also a form of pretentiousness. Ride-or-die shouldn’t mean just accepting any type of behavior.
No matter how avant garde a musician or band considers themselves to be, people should be aware that the expressions of their personal muse doesn’t always connect in the way that he or she would like it to. Kweli mentions the Rolling Stones and Motley Crue—Considering the going rate for their concerts, for damn sure those guys are performing the hits, and not just left-field covers for 90 minutes. If I were paying my own work-salary derived money for a ticket, and not on the free-guest list, then YES, I would expect quite a bit of their traditional catalog.
Regarding the lack of commercial output, I'm not so arrogant to insist that Lauryn has to put out a studio LP to validate her talent, but it's not outrageous to observe now and then if she's going to put something out. As it stands, she "quit" commercial releases (for the most part) circa 2002, while in her late 20s. Heck, James Brown was in his 40s when his 1970s era work was coming out. Funk performers George Clinton and Bootsy still put out stuff from time to time. Herbie Hancock is decades removed from “Cantaloupe Island”, the Head Hunters LP and "Rockit" but still releases new work. Prince has two new LPs coming out this week. Public Enemy still put out albums even though "casual" fans probably have no idea about their post-1992 catalog. I don’t feel that Lauryn owes me a new album. But to observe “hey, it would be cool if she did finally put something new out” doesn’t make me a maniac.
I hope MCs don't start performing with their backs to the audience. But who knows, it might be coming.