There are many reasons why Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) captivated audiences, earning 10 Grammy nominations (and winning five). The most important may be that Hill’s debut album featured exceptionally crafted, often daring songs built around a universal theme: love. As cliché as the topic remains in R&B, Hill managed to make all that was old new again by devising a frame narrative — wherein Hill is absent from school on a day when students learn about relationships — to drive the album’s eclectic, often heartbreaking soul. Just as important was Hill’s creative control in the studio, which was not necessarily unprecedented, but still rare. She wrote most of the songs in an attic while pregnant and recorded nearly every texture on her own. When Fugee collaborator Wyclef Jean offered assistance as a producer, Hill declined.
Listeners can speculate all day about why she turned him away, but the result was clear. Hill crafted an album as principled as it was universal. Songs like “Every Ghetto, Every City” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” were about childhood nostalgia and female identity assertion, respectively, but their melodies were so infectious that the topics could fly over listeners’ heads with nary a hiccup in personal enjoyment. Meanwhile, for every track like “Lost Ones,” where Hill played the didactic, independent (and judgmental) soulquarian, there was another like “Tell Him,” where Hill exuded a crushing, vulnerable romanticism. It went without question: No amount of men behaving badly could force her to compromise her principles, yet it was clear that she viewed herself incomplete if not devoted to someone else. This human portrayal cast her in alluring lights with both the casual radio listener and the disgustingly choosy music enthusiast. If nothing else, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill proved that uncompromising art could win in an industry still driven by record sales. The record was deeply personal, political, often preachy, and featured some dark, dissonant cuts. But it was also a massive hit.
Then things got weird. Hill’s unbending attitude in the studio (which fans adored) likely led her into a self-imposed exile (which fans decried) at the precise moment when most musicians would have recorded a follow-up to such a successful album. Her next release was a 2002 resurrection of the live series MTV Unplugged that garnered extremely divided reviews. Stretching across two discs, the MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 featured Hill armed with an acoustic guitar, a mic, and a penchant for rambling (one spoken interlude runs over 12 minutes). Rolling Stone described the album as “a public breakdown.” All Music Guide reviewed the album favorably, but admitted, “She’s usually full of herself and often full of it.”
Years later, it’s apparent that Hill’s righteous idealism has been the only constant in her work. The result has been a career that is alternately lauded and deplored. The 2006 failed Fugees reunion is largely attributed by bandmates Wyclef Jean and Pras to Hill’s ego. She demanded to be addressed as “Ms. Hill” by everyone involved in the project and was always late to shows. Her other failed detours from music include a never-completed screenplay on the life of Bob Marley (where she cast herself as his wife, naturally), producing a romantic comedy entitled Sauce, and starring in the film adaption of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (she dropped out of both Sauce and Beloved due to pregnancy). Both Sony and Columbia have given conflicting press reports about whether Hill plans to release a proper follow-up to Miseducation. Inversely, Rohan Marley, the father of Hill’s five children and Bob’s son, has described her as an intensely productive musician. And yet a traditional studio album has yet to materialize. Based on previous behavior, Hill likely holds anyone accountable for that but herself.
As Hill continues her stop-start touring career that began in 2008, she remains an inspiration for many black musicians, including John Legend, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Kanye West, and others. Her brand of high-concept R&B lives on in the work of artists like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe. As her earliest fans have grown up, her work has also become the subject of academic studies, particularly regarding being a woman in hip-hop. It seems that her career, with its many mixed or incomplete artistic endeavors, has always stood in the shadow of Miseducation and suffered as a result.
Margaret Wappler of the Los Angeles Times caught an encapsulating snapshot of the current state of Hill’s career in a review of her recent Coachella performance. Hill’s band walked out 15 minutes past set time, took another 20 to “straighten out the energy” (Wappler’s quotes on Hill’s words), and proceeded to cut into the next set by five. Despite this, the crowd responded to Hill with praise deserving of a superstar. Wappler wrote, “To love Hill’s music was to accept that its creator might never advance her musical legacy again.” Lucky for Hill and all her career recklessness, her fans seem more than willing.
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