On a windy rooftop above Pier 17 of New York’s South Street Seaport—and approximately three and a half hours after the show’s advertised start time—the Fugees performed together for the first time in 15 years, presenting a colossal show taped to be aired as part of this weekend’s Global Citizen Festival.
Billed as a pop-up show, it was far from that. With a pageantry rarely seen at a rap show, the set opened with the one-by-one emergence of a 20-piece mixed-style orchestra (14 horn players in formal attire, multiple guitarists, keyboardists, and bass players, backup singers, and a DJ), followed by Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel, and finally, Ms. Lauryn Hill, wearing a red-ruffled couture gown (which word is she designed).
As an instrumental horn and key version of “The Score” led into “How Many Mics,” and as the reality of the reunion hit, the night quickly became more joyful, collective celebration than mere entertainment, with a constant crowd-wide rap-along like hundreds of people greeting an old friend.
The thunderous “Zealots” beat drop brought an audience-unison head nod only ‘90s hip-hop can summon, and “Fu-Gee-La” caused what felt like a momentary mosh pit, an energy so strong Wyclef waved the procession to a halt and re-started the song just to watch it erupt again.
Wyclef spoke on the recently documented abuse of Haitian refugees as they attempted to cross the U.S. border in Del Rio, Texas. The incident strikes home especially hard for the rapper, who at age 9, immigrated from Haiti along with his younger brother to meet their parents in Brooklyn.
After addressing the border incident, Jean yelled what certainly sounded like “new Fugees!!” and ripped into an orchestra-free, boom-bap beat, dropping a verse and a chorus before passing the mic to Ms. Hill. (Some outlets are reporting this as a mere freestyle—don’t listen. Sources within the camp have confirmed to SPIN this is new Fugees music, and more is brewing)
Rather than take the mic from Jean, Hill paused the show for a monologue—a considerate, friendly and informative one, mind you—explaining the group’s origins and rise, and providing a relatable perspective on why their hiatus was necessary.
Hill shared the story of Michel recruiting her at age 12 to join the pre-Fugees Tranzlator Crew with Jean in the late 1980s, developing the group with the two all through her teens while leading the emergence of global hip-hop, as a beautiful but exhausting period. “Killing Me Softly” followed, one of Hill’s classic vocal-flex playgrounds, this time supported by three female backing vocalists with The Supremes-style moves. An extended, horn-driven version of “Ready or Not” was the last true hip-hop song of the night, and also the moment Hill hit full stride, teasing avian vocal runs in the chorus more Coltrane than song.
The show closed with Jean leading the group’s traditional cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”, capping the song with a “wave your hands if…” crowd interaction (“raise your hands if: you love someone…lost someone to cancer…lost someone to COVID…miss your mom…miss your grandma…miss someone in jail”). It was a warm ending to a powerful evening, followed by an honest embrace between the three, a group bow and exit.
Understandably, the production as a whole is still coming together. It could be said Hill is still regaining pacing and breath control—though full-force song into rapid rapping and back again is no cakewalk for a performer of any age—but when her formula hits, there’s no doubt she’s the best singer/lyricist hip-hop has ever seen.
Michel (who did not provide a quote for the group’s official reunion press release), played side-stage much of the night, though performed with vital energy, and remains a great tonal and presence counterpoint to his bandmates.
Through the show’s first half, the sound left a bit to be desired, but in mixing a veritable orchestra on a roof in downtown East River winds, the clarity the soundman eventually dialed in was fantastic.
How Many Mics
Killing Me Softly
Ready or Not
No Woman, No Cry