Lauryn Hill’s commitment was to presenting the truest version of herself, not appealing to commercial interests.
Ocean’s set seemed like a rebuke of this trend. New arrangements of his most beloved songs, like “Bad Religion” and “White Ferrari,” sounded more astral and expansive than ever. “Solo” approached something resembling starry electric jazz and nearly brought me to tears. The speech Ocean gave about his younger brother, who died in a car accident in 2020 and with whom he went to Coachella multiple times, immediately did. The songs sometimes showed their seams, letting his voice reach higher and skate the sky. Delicate acoustic takes of “Pink + White” and “Self Control” brought to mind the intimacy of a theoretical Ocean appearance on “MTV Unplugged.”
Pop music history is filled with incidents in which celebrated artists polarized their audiences from big stages, but one important precedent is Lauryn Hill’s 2001 performance on “MTV Unplugged.” On that show, and the unvarnished album that followed the next year, “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0,” she sang her biblical hip-hop folk profundities in a gorgeous raspy voice, accompanied by her acoustic guitar. In between songs, she delivered monologues of uncompromising creative wisdom. At the time, this live session was considered bewildering and met with divided reviews. Hill’s commitment was to presenting the truest version of herself, not appealing to commercial interests. “Fantasy is what people want,” Hill said then, “but reality is what they need.”
You can imagine the now-35-year-old Ocean growing up, absorbing Hill’s messaging and reflecting his own unpolished reality in concert. When he played Coachella in 2012, he covered “Tell Him” from “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Ocean has a documented fondness for her “Unplugged” performance: His song “Rushes,” from “Endless,” interpolates Hill’s “Just Like Water”; he once rapped over a sample of “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind,” a track on which Hill cries. “What I am is what I am, and I can’t be afraid to, you know, to expose that to the public,” Hill said during the “MTV Unplugged” performance. She defended her right to let her voice crack, which was a reflection of her lived experience. Such honesty calls people to be artists. But contemporary streaming culture, and the rigid aesthetic standards it widely supports, are hostile to frayed edges.
On the spontaneous Ocean Instagram stream, I caught glory in flickers. Ocean’s set, which he himself called “chaotic” while emphasizing the “beauty in chaos,” was a presentation of his own humanity. In a just popular culture, that is what a “live” album, “live” stream, “live” concert and “live” artist is: raw, fallible and human.