Thursday, August 28, 2008
(The Artist Formerly Known As) Lauryn Hill
by Shannon J. Effinger
July 21, 2008
01: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
If I talk about Lauryn Hill today, I can only refer to her in the past tense. Her first album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has sold millions of copies worldwide. In 1999, she was the first female artist to win five Grammys for her solo effort, including Album of the Year—the first time that such an honor had been given to a hip-hop record. Hill was the rejuvenation that popular music needed at that time—a perfect blend of old school R&B with a keen intellect and current social awareness to move hip-hop towards a more brilliant future. At just 23, Hill demanded that the entire world stand at attention and finally acknowledge hip-hop as American music's legitimate son, alongside jazz and rock n' roll. Then suddenly, she walked away from it all: the fame, her loyal fan base, and more importantly, the music. In the summer of 2001, she returned to us with an acoustic MTV Unplugged performance and CD. Gone forever were the dreadlocks, her organic, effortless style—a blend of ghetto chic and high-end fashionista—the entourage and the numerous musicians that once backed her. She wore no make-up, jeans, and a Yankee baseball cap with a scarf underneath. "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need," Hill announced to her Unplugged audience. "I've just retired from the fantasy part."
When I first heard Hill utter those words, I knew that this was going to be a prophetic and groundbreaking album, but I knew it would also mark the end of her professional career. She was supposed to make an album similar to her first, to stick with the "plan." But that wasn't Hill's plan. Like most artists, Hill wanted the freedom to experiment and share an entirely different message. Songs like "Adam Lives in Theory" and "Mystery of Iniquity" (the latter sampled by Kanye West for his song "All Falls Down") completely went over the heads of those present in that audience. Her performance that night was less than stellar, with Hill's cracking voice and shaky guitar riffs. Her lyrics, however, were so powerful in that they conjured the spirits of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, but it was clearly her own voice. She not only challenged the record industry, but also the roles that both government and religion play in our lives. Hill took advantage of the influence she had on young people and used her fame to spread her album's message of protest and rebellion. Her second album only sold a fraction of the first album's sales. Soon after, she left us again.
02: The Reeducation of "Ms. Hill"
In the July/August 2005 issue of TRACE Magazine, Lauryn Hill was interviewed for the first time in nearly seven years since the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Arriving two and a half hours late, she insisted that everyone call her "Ms. Hill." She immediately threw all of the editorial and production crews out of the room. Hill would not allow their makeup artist to touch her face and asked for a last minute replacement. She even requested that mirrors be placed to the left of the camera so that she could approve her own image before the photographer captured it. This was not the same open, humble Lauryn Hill that we once knew. Someone might sum up her behavior in one simple word: "diva." Perhaps she is. Between the reality shows and tabloids' compulsive obsession with celebrities, Hill was led to reject what she considered as the "absolute commercialization" of her identity. She was an artist and a person with conviction, not a personality. With all of the designer goods brought in for this photo shoot, the role of celebrity was perhaps the only label that Hill was never comfortable wearing. I don't think that Hill wanted to build up these walls, but they have become a necessity for her. Not only to maintain her privacy (and sanity), but to also show the world that she controlled how "Lauryn Hill" would be seen and heard throughout the world.
During her interview, Hill explained why hip-hop music, and ultimately our youth culture, has gone astray. In two words, she summarized what has taken me years to figure out: "generational abortion." In previous decades, most art was a response to wars, discrimination, and the racism that surrounded them. Music was more than a form of release; it was also the voice and protest of a youth that had been silenced. What I think Hill meant was that today's youth somehow forgot about that. Music, at its best, has the power to make change, to inspire and motivate people.
Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Since the release of this seminal album, the music industry still has not found an artist who could fill the void. Not since Miles Davis or Prince have I encountered such an artist who has her foot firmly planted in both the past and present of black music and can create a sound that is uniquely her own. This album was an inspiration for everyone, especially for young black girls and women who did not often see positive, beautiful images of color to look up to. Hill set a standard in the music industry that most of today's artists, frankly, still have not met. She's so wise beyond her 33 years and I truly doubt that we have heard the last word from "Ms. Hill."