The enigmatic Lauryn Hill emerged with the Fugees in the 1990s. Her star quality was there for all to see; it was crystal clear not only to those looking on but to her bandmates also, that it was she was the special ingredient that made the group one of the defining acts of the decade.
The excitement around Hill as she began her solo career was tangible. All the eyes in the world were following the musician as she stepped out on her own two feet. The Fugees’ second album, The Score, ascended the band into superstardom in 1996. It didn’t leave the top ten of the Billboard charts in the States for six whole months as millions continued to buy the album and fall in love with their distinct sound.
Although her bandmates Wyclef Jean and Pras were talented rappers, Hill was the group’s not-so-secret weapon. Not only is Hill gifted with a heavenly voice, but she could also go bar for bar with anyone who dared to step up. She is, it goes without saying, the ultimate pioneering figure for women in rap.
The weight of expectation was firmly rested upon Hill’s shoulders when she descended upon her solo career, but, somehow, she managed to exceed all expectations with the release of the 1998 LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The legendary neu-soul effort sounds just as shimmering today as it ever did, and like all outstanding records, it’s aged gracefully.
The record became the first album by a solo female rapper to peak and debut at number one. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill arrived with widespread critical acclaim, and it was a fixture at the top spot of almost every end of the year album list. “I remember when I first took in that album,” Little Simz said about the record to The Independent in 2019, offering a clear insight into the legacy and impact of the project. “I remember where I was in life, hearing it and having goosebumps for the first time, and thinking, ‘Oh, shit, I didn’t know music could do that for you’.
“I didn’t know music could make you cry. And then I got to tell her that’s what it did,” she added. “Insane. And it was dope to see how you could take those songs that are years old, and still breathe new life into them. That’s true artistry, isn’t it? Not being bound to just one thing,” the British rapper added.
The album helped Hill win five Grammys at the 1999 awards ceremony, including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Best R&B Album. However, Hill gave birth to her first child a few months after the album’s release, and getting back into the studio was far from a priority on her agenda.
After a couple of years of almost radio silence, Hill finally re-emerged, but her next step defied conventions again. In July 2001, while pregnant with her third child, Hill took the opportunity to perform on MTV Unplugged, but rather than run through an array of hits from her Fugees career and Miseducation, she had other ideas.
Hill used this opportunity to express a whole new side to herself that previously nobody knew existed. She took to the stage with just an acoustic guitar and showed off a collection of new blissful soul tracks that shocked the world.
The album was met with a mixed reaction, with many furious at Hill for abandoning her hip-hop roots. Despite the furore, she continued to stay true to herself as an artist and used the Unplugged session as an excuse to share tracks that she’d collected since we last saw her.
That same year Hill was forced to pay out $5million after being sued by people who claimed to have co-written her debut album, which left Hill out of love with the music industry and the politics that came with it.
The tracks featured on Unplugged provide a snapshot of where she was from a personal perspective at that juncture in time. Fame was too much for Hill, and the pressures of being one of the most recognisable artists on the planet made her reclusive.
“People need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time,” she later reflected with Essence Magazine. “I had to step away when I realised that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised. I felt uncomfortable about having to smile in someone’s face when I really didn’t like them or even know them well enough to like them.
“For two or three years, I was away from all social interaction. It was a very introspective time because I had to confront my fears and master every demonic thought about inferiority, about insecurity or the fear of being black, young and gifted in this western culture,” she added.
Hill has been touring sporadically throughout the last fifteen years and struck up a healthy schedule on her own terms, but that much-desired second album still hasn’t arrived. Things took a dramatic turn when she was imprisoned in 2013 for tax evasion and is further proof that the people advising her failed on a catastrophic level. The results of poor company and bad decisions led to Hill serving a three-month sentence.
After over 20-years of speculation, Hill finally provided a definitive answer on why that album has never arisen, and the truth is a dark reflection on the music industry. “The wild thing is that no one from my label has ever called me and asked how can we help you make another album,” she told Rolling Stone’s podcast. “EVER…EVER. Did I say ever? Ever! With The Miseducation, there was no precedent. I was, for the most part, free to explore, experiment, and express. After The Miseducation, there were scores of tentacled obstructionists, politics, repressing agendas, unrealistic expectations, and saboteurs EVERYWHERE.”
Adding: “People had included me in their own narratives of THEIR successes as it pertained to my album, and if this contradicted my experience, I was considered an enemy. Artist suppression is definitely a thing. I won’t go too much into it here, but where there should have been overwhelming support, there wasn’t any.”
The career of Lauryn Hill speaks volumes about the truth of the music industry and how it builds artists up just to spit them out without realising they are humans. While Hill has still carved out an iconic career, and her material is so well-loved that she can still headline festivals, who knows what could have been if she had the right people looking out for her and guiding her throughout that torturous period.