There was no brighter star in the world of music than Lauryn Hill at the turn of the 21st century. By 2000, Hill had garnered critical acclaim and commercial success through her work with the Fugees, including an international number one hit with their cover of Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’, which was mostly a Hill solo effort. In the end, it was due to a technicality that ‘Killing Me Softly’ was ineligible to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, but reached number one on the magazine’s Mainstream Top 40 chart.
Upon leaving the hip hop trio, Hill focused her energies on producing her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. An eclectic blend of hip hop, soul, R&B, and pop, Miseducation catapulted Hill to the forefront of the mainstream, garnering five Grammys, selling over 20 million copies, and notching her first (and to date only) number one single in America with ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’. As the new millennium approached, Hill was poised to be at the forefront of a new wave of cutting edge artists, including Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys, and a young Beyonce.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it panned out. On Miseducation, Hill sang of the love and prioritisation she was placing on her family on ‘To Zion’. As her family continued to grow, she began to turn further and further away from music. Coupled with the intense pressure of fame, the failures of numerous film projects to come to fruition, and a lawsuit from the music collective New Ark who helped arrange and produce the songs on Miseducation that were largely only credited to Hill alone, tensions soured Hill’s desire to continue her career in both the music industry and the public eye.
Hill released a rambling and largely incoherent live album, MTV Unplugged No 2.0, in 2002. That LP showed flashes of promise and even some inspired new material, but those new songs were unfinished, and the performance found Hill mostly talking about her struggles instead of playing songs. Hill went on occasional tours, including an aborted 2005 Fugees reunion, but her penchant for showing up late and refusal to play standard arrangements of her most popular songs led to polarising reviews. Hill was largely seen as an artist who simply didn’t have her professional life together.
And then came her imprisonment. In 2012, the IRS claimed that Hill had failed to pay taxes on nearly $2 million dollars in earnings from the years 2005 through 2007. Hill cited her responsibilities as a mother for her failure to pay the taxes and called out the government in a statement during the trial. “I am a child of former slaves who had a system imposed on them,” Hill said in court. “I had an economic system imposed on me.”
Ultimately, the state of New Jersey sentenced Hill to three months in prison. She served her sentence in 2013 and relayed nearly $1 million of the money she originally owed. In the time since, Hill has made occasional critically acclaimed live appearances and has even dropped an errant single here and there, but Hill’s professional life in the music industry can only be described as “erratic”. Just recently, Hill reunited with the Fugees for a reunion tour, sparking renewed calls for a comeback solo album and a return to the spotlight. The chances are rare, considering how many times we’ve been down this road before, but never fully count out Ms. Lauryn Hill.