Lauryn Hill owned 1998. She owned the Billboard charts, she owned the Grammy Awards, and perhaps most importantly, she owned the hearts of millions of fans. With The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she had created something that people thought might revolutionize hip-hop. It was a delicate, sophisticated, and smart combination of hip-hop, soul, and reggae influences, written and produced largely by Hill herself. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" was her rap-soul call-out to the girls, promoting self-respect and personal ethics in the face of objectification and abuse. But after becoming the overnight queen of hip-hop, Hill disappeared. What happened to the brilliant singer, songwriter, MC, producer, and performer who created one of the greatest hip-hop soul albums in history?
"I think Lauryn grew to despise who Lauryn Hill was," a friend told music writer Touré for a 2003 article on Hill's disappearance from the spotlight. "Not that she despised herself as a human being, but she despised the manufactured international-superstar magazine cover girl who wasn't able to go out of the house looking a little tattered on a given day" (Touré: "The Mystery of Lauryn Hill," Never Drank the Kool-Aid, p. 161).
Well, fair enough. Hill was strong, sensual, and spiritual in equal parts—a rare combination, and a difficult balance to maintain in the public eye, which tends to focus on the shallower parts of people. In 1999, Hill told Touré that her beauty came from within: "It has nothing to do with my face. I feel beautiful because of my heart. I think I have a very loving, kind spirit. I think it's the God in me that makes me beautiful" (203). Try telling that to the biting world of entertainment industry journalism and the notoriously judgmental and invasive paparazzi, who buzzed around Hill then the way they buzz around Lady Gaga now. Kind, loving spirits don’t sell tabloids.
Wyclef's side girl?
Hill had been in the public eye for several years prior to releasing her debut solo album, first as a small-time actress (she appeared alongside Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2 in 1993) and then as the lead singer of The Fugees. The Fugees came together as a soul-driven hip-hop trio whose second album, The Score, sent them up the charts and led to chatter that they were hip-hop's new geniuses on the scene. But Hill was very young at the time, and she was romantically involved with Fugees ringleader Wyclef Jean. Apparently, when The Fugees became successful, they also fell apart: Hill and Clef were jealous of each other, and Clef and the third member, Pras (his cousin) didn't support Hill when she wanted to do a solo album.
Wyclef, not Hill, was said to be the musical genius. But Hill knew she could do amazing things without him. According to Ahmir Thompson, the drummer for The Roots, "her solo career wasn't based on 'I wanna do an album.' It was based on not being Wyclef's side girl."
"Not being Wyclef's side girl" turned out to be a worthy project: even though it initially meant splitting from The Fugees on mediocre terms, it ultimately meant The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She recruited a young band of unknown musicians from her home state of New Jersey, got the backing to record in Bob Marley's old studio in Jamaica, and created a masterpiece. All of the songwriting and production on the album was credited solely to Hill, with the exception of one track. After it dropped, the album spent a full 81 weeks on the Billboard 200 Albums charts, and it won Hill five Grammy Awards (the most ever received by a woman in one night at that time—Beyoncé has since beat Hill's record, taking home 6 awards in 2010). "Doo Wop (That Thing)" was a fast hit, and Hill became a bona fide superstar.
Hill was a huge hit with the critics, who praised her for revolutionizing rap, bringing back soul, and injecting reggae's revolutionary sensibility into an art that some believed had become overly commercial. Obviously, though, Lauryn Hill alone was not capable of bringing depth back to commercial hip-hop. If anything, the focus on her and her alone as a superstar sex symbol quickly chipped away at her own sense of integrity. In 1999, a lawsuit was launched against Hill by five of the musicians who played on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, insisting that they were owed writing and production credits, which Hill hadn’t given them.
Was it backlash against her for her success, or a sign that she had really taken advantage of naïve young musicians? Unfortunately, it seems like Hill herself played the situation somewhat naïvely: friends say she felt she had a spiritual, loving connection with all the musicians on her album, and she failed to get anything in writing with them prior to recording. Her spiritual belief in the power of music to transcend was quickly bitten in the behind by the demands of commerce, and people she thought were good friends ended up suing for credits on the album. (She settled the case in court for $5M.) According to her friends and family, it was not the money, but the idea of the lawsuit, that really got to her. Hill believed in what she was doing and was painfully unprepared for the cynical nature of music industry politics.
James Poyser, who plays keys on "Doo Wop (That Thing)," felt for Hill, but he suggested she should have been more careful: "When you throw your heart out there, you gotta be prepared for it to not land somewhere soft," he told Rolling Stone in a 2008 retrospective on the album. Hill had put her heart out to the world with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and she ended up feeling like the world wanted more image than substance. Her friends became her enemies, and she became increasingly isolated. Rather than producing that incredible second album that everyone was hoping for, she instead followed up with a famously terrible live album for MTV Unplugged. The 2002 release flopped commercially, and Hill's onstage rants and open claims that her life had fallen apart were not received with quite the empathy she was hoping for.
Chasing that thing? Not for Lauryn Hill
People got even more worried when Hill appeared to become possessed by the teachings of a mysterious Christian teacher and advisor known as Brother Anthony. In the early 2000s, she began doing daily bible study with Anthony, and according to those around her, much of her talk became both deeply religious and creepily cult-like.
According to Hill, after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she simply took the moral high ground, the same path she advocated in "Doo Wop (That Thing)." The song encourages women to choose integrity over hypocrisy and self-respect over sacrificing their identities, and for Hill, that boiled down to a simple principle: she only wanted to make music when she felt inspired. She was the same strong woman she had always been, but she was not going to be forced down a narrow career path because of the objectifying gaze of the public eye. She couldn't stand having to look a certain way when she went out in public, and she was pained by the in fighting with other musicians. She felt taken advantage of by the industry—and she was happy to articulate these feelings whenever she gave one of her rare interviews. According to Lauryn Hill, she was still Lauryn Hill—though in later years she has insisted on being referred to as Ms. Hill professionally—but she was just not interested in chasing the tail of her own image.
Regardless of people’s views on Hill's newfound religion or righteous take on music politics, there was nothing fans or the music industry could do to help—or to convince her to put out another album. When Touré contacted her for a Rolling Stone interview in 2003, she refused, saying that she would have to get paid to accept. When Claude Grunitsky interviewed her for The Trace in 2005, she gave him the run-around, refusing to shake his hand and at one point demanding to interview him. "Do you think that you can actually know these people that you are writing about?" she asked him in the interview. When Grunitzky said, “No,” Hill responded, "Good answer."
It seems Lauryn Hill was hardly the unconscious victim of inaccurate portrayal by a media desperate to document every celebrity train-wreck. Rather, she was sharply critical of what the media would have her be: "If an artist is not conscious," she said in 2005, "they can be traumatized. What I understand now, that I didn't understand then, is the art and commerce can be opposed like black and white." Today, Hill will sometimes give shows, but she still resists audiences, insisting that she will never again exist to please her fans.
"Maybe some people are creative," she told Grunitzky, "because they have to [be] blatantly honest, but commercial success doesn't always welcome blatant honesty. It puts a strain on the people who are being celebrated for their gifts and talents. These gifts and talents come from lack of compromise."
"At the end of the day," her old Fugees band mate Pras told Touré in 2003, "Lauryn is not happy with herself. She's not gonna do some disc because she gotta make money for Sony. It just so happens that she's done something that captured a moment in people's lives. They want more of that, but she's not ready to give that" (p. 169).
"Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need," Lauryn Hill told the audience at her 2001 MTV Unplugged performance. "I've just retired from the fantasy part."