You have to understand how it was back then. Lauryn Hill was theeeeeeeee bidness. The Fugees had done their classic album, The Score, and Lauryn Hill’s vocals had really shone through on songs like “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly.” Besides that, Lauryn had spit some serious lyrics throughout the album, proving herself to be a capable emcee. But more than that, the album was a masterpiece–I loved “How Many Mics” and “Zealots” in particular. And then she was doing a little acting, showing up in Sister Act 2. Critical acclaim for The Score was nearly universal.
While Lauryn was excellent, there was no guarantee that her solo album would be as good, for two reasons: first, The Score really was the product of a group effort. Wyclef, Lauryn, and even Pras (no disrespect, man) actually had a recipe that cooked up something delicious. It wasn’t like, say, the Black Eyed Peas, where the weight falls mostly on will.i.am and Fergie, or like Destiny’s Child, where it was clear that Beyonce was always going to be the star. Pras was more like Flavor Flav–no one can say exactly what he was doing in the group, but we all know that Public Enemy wouldn’t have been the same without him. And second, the bar set by The Score was really, really high.
And then she dropped The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. If you’re reading this, then I don’t need to tell you how great that album is–but I might need to remind you of how great that album was. At the moment it hit, there was nothing else like it. There have been women who have sung and rapped on their album before, but no one has ever done both as well as Lauryn has. I will grant you the possible exception of Missy Elliot. You might pay to hear Nicki Minaj rap, but you aren’t really excited to hear her sing. Faith Evans can actually rap some (and in fact, she should rap more), but if you’re going to hear her, you’re trying to hear “Soon As I Get Home.” I theorize that Jill Scott, if she really wanted to, could probably put together a very good rap album. But Lauryn actually did–“Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “X-Factor” are both great songs and they are both representative of the body of work. When she sings the hook and raps the verse on “Everything is Everything,” it was only natural. “Nothing Even Matters” with D’Angelo is a Get Down Tape All-Star. And then there was the subject matter–not just the traditional themes for an R&B or hip hop album–but also motherhood, faith, spirituality, and some serious social issues.
A side question–why doesn’t more R&B and hip hop by female artists deal with motherhood? I mean, after “To Zion,” the next song I can think of is “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton, and the next song after that I can think of is “Responsibility” by the Ghetto Twinz, which is really more about single motherhood and being angry at the absence of your children’s father. This is likely the first time the Ghetto Twinz and Lauryn Hill have been mentioned in the same sentence, and the circumstances under which that has happened are about as sad and pitiful as you would expect. I’ve got to be missing some songs here; somebody let me know. There are some other artists who make mention of motherhood occasionally–Jill Scott comes to mind–but there really aren’t many rap or soul songs about the actual experience of being a mom, apart from the realities of what a man may or may not be doing in your life. The truth is, one of the top three songs in R&B/Soul about the motherhood experience was written by a woman but is actually sung by a man: Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” Man, don’t you love Kate Bush? And Maxwell’s decision to cover that song was quite inspired. But the shortness of this list is a testament that we really need more songs about motherhood in soul and hip hop, and also tells you how important Lauryn’s song “To Zion” really was. To give you an idea of how heavy the album was relative to most pop music of the time (and now), listen to Lauryn describe how she dealt with the pressure she received to get an abortion–and not from the child’s father:
Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
“Lauryn, baby use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart
(Interestingly enough, this was Lauryn’s second time addressing this issue–she’d sung the hook on Common’s “Retrospect for Life.” Incidentally, this was the first Common song I ever heard. There’s actually no way that song could have been anything less than great–Lauryn, Common, and a Stevie Wonder sample?) Pssshhhh. Another side note: Lauryn is totally underrated as a featured hook singer on rap songs, probably because she didn’t do it a whole lot. Nas’ “If I Ruled The World” would have been okay, but with Lauryn it’s a hip hop classic. She takes it from a celebration of hedonism with occasional bouts of consciousness to something better: “If I ruled the world/I’d free all my sons (I love em, love em baby).” It was simple yet powerful.
So understand, Lauryn had all the boxes checked: she could sing, she could rap, she could act a little, she was beautiful. Everything she’d done, she’d done well. She’d made a classic album with the Fugees, a classic album on her own, been on classic songs with other people, had memorable moments in movies, and had been named one of People Magazine‘s 50 Most Beautiful People in the world.
And then she disappeared.
She had her reasons, I’m sure. It’s difficult to understand what it feels like to be successful at that level, and famous at that level, where so many people’s success is dependent on your success. They don’t want to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. She talked about it a little in Essence:
“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… I had to step away when I realized 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.”
So after you’ve stepped away from the spotlight, and you say you’re coming back, what do people expect? The last thing they ever heard from you was something excellent. It’s arguable that all they’ve ever heard from you was something excellent. It’s impossible to blame them for expecting something excellent.
And then she dropped her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album. “Man, Lauryn’s gone crazy,” people said. “She broke down crying.” “Her voice was hoarse and kept cracking.” I won’t argue. I mean, she did stop for a lozenge. She did forget the lyrics and stopped for a few moments while she tried to remember them. (People started clapping just because she finally did recall them and was able to continue the song.) Some people judged her songs as sounding unfinished. Some others felt like she played the same three chords over and over again, and not all that well. I mean, look: those people are probably right on a lot of that stuff and definitely right on some of the rest.
But it doesn’t matter. The fact of the business is that Lauryn’s Unplugged album is simply incredible. It’s been more than ten years now, and if you want me to be honest, if I’m playing Lauryn around the house these days it’s much more likely to be Unplugged than anything else she’s done. The lyrics are dense, but you can tell that she means every single word that she says, and equally as important, that she’s seriously thought about every single word that she says. Because of these qualities, just about every song on this album is a candidate for being on repeat for an hour and a half if it hits you at the right time. When I lived in my hood apartment, the walls were super thin–thin enough to hear the fights between Sonny two doors down and his girlfriend, thin enough to hear the people having sex in the apartment above me, but most importantly, thin enough to hear my neighbor and friend, Liz, playing “Just Like Water” on repeat on Saturday. And I appreciated it–I’ve played that song on repeat a few times myself. If you keep on living, you will go through some things. And if you go through some things, then songs like “Just Like Water” will be part of the soundtrack to your life if you let them. Same with “Mystery of Iniquity,” which Kanye West borrowed from for “All Falls Down.” (If you dig around on the internet a little, you can find the original version that had Lauryn’s vocals–although I personally think Syleena Johnson did a great job.) Right now, my life soundtrack song from that album is “I Get Out.” Lately, people have been trying to put me in a box. Lauryn gets out of all your boxes and helps me to remember that I get out, too. And maybe the problem is that people keep asking the wrong questions: when is she getting back with the Fugees? When is more music coming? Is she gonna give us that Miseducation again or is she still going to be on that crazy stuff? Where did she go wrong? These are boxes, and she’s already told us that she gets out. Just watch her performance:
When I go back and listen to Miseducation these days, a lot of it feels like finger-wagging. It doesn’t mean that Lauryn didn’t have a point, just that, well, if you’re a mature grown-up who is doing grown-up things, much of her advice won’t be particularly impactful or groundbreaking. On that album, she’s far better when she’s descriptive of her own observations and experience rather than prescriptive of yours. Unplugged doesn’t suffer from these problems. She talks about society as a whole only after having turned her gaze inward. She’s spent time thinking and inspires you to do the same. In that way, Unplugged stands up to the test of time in a way that Miseducation doesn’t.
In almost every artist’s career, there is some defining moment for which there will be a “before” and an “after.” Sometimes more than one: For Lil Wayne, there is a before and after Tha Carter II, then a before and after Tha Carter 3. For the Beatles, there’s at least before and after Revolver. For Lauryn, it’s harder to pinpoint, musically. It’s really more of a before and after she met Brother Anthony, who is, depending on who you ask, a cult leader or a spiritual adviser. I was talking to my wife about the time she saw Lauryn in concert. She saw her in the “before.” I saw her in concert during the “after.” We saw two totally different women. When I saw Lauryn, she came out, sat on the one stool on an empty stage, said “good evening” and immediately played her guitar and sang for forty-five minutes straight. Then she said, “That’s my time. Goodnight.” And left. It was the quietest concert ever. It was great, but nobody was singing along–and not because they didn’t know any of the words. People treated Lauryn like a guest speaker, a lecturer at a college. Everyone just wanted to hear.
I’m not going to beg Lauryn to come all the way back. As a matter of fact, a)I think that Lauryn needs to just do what it takes to be okay and b)Lauryn Hill is on my list of people who have made a contribution to music that is so sublime that I don’t ask for anything else from them. I’ll write about that list one day, but people on it are people who could release a terrible album and you could say about them, “Well, at least they made ________,” and then you’d just go back and listen to that. For instance, Adele will always have made 19 and 21. Mos Def (I still call him Mos Def, just like I kept calling Prince “Prince”) still made Black on Both Sides and Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star. D’Angelo made Voodoo. Amy Winehouse would have been on the list because of Back to Black, although I really liked Frank. The Wallflowers are on it for Bringing Down the Horse. And Lauryn is on it because of The Score, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and the Unplugged album, but only collectively. You need all three to bring all the facets of Lauryn’s career into focus.
I’m not saying Lauryn doesn’t need to come around a little bit. She may be a little bit delusional sometimes, perhaps unwilling to face certain issues. But a little perspective is in order. People think Lauryn is crazy in part because she went through a phase looking like this
but forget that Wyclef, with whom she (according to him and other sources) had a crazy (side) relationship, has shown up looking like this:
That ‘Clef picture makes me chuckle every time. That’s a wild dude. I give him props for seeming to keep it one hunnid in his autobiography. But this man–yes, the man you see in the picture–believed he had a legitimate shot at becoming the president of a nation of ten million people. I’m just wondering, you know, did you run out of baby oil before you could get to your knees and legs, fam? I’m just trying to understand. I might be missing something and I don’t want to judge. Maybe this was intentional comedy? If so, bravo: this right here is Chapellian. If you were trying to be funny you have succeeded far, far beyond your wildest dreams. Because honestly, if I was putting out a dis record against Wyclef, this would be the cover art I would use.
I could go on about this album. I love her versions of “The Conquering Lion” and “So Much Things To Say.” But “Just Want You Around,” “Mr. Intentional,” “Adam Lives In Theory,” and “I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel)” make it worth the price of admission. I also think that, while Lauryn was not a very good guitar player, it’s nice to see a person and an instrument in R&B/soul/hip-hop. Everything is Pro-Tooled to death, it seems, and this is naked and raw.
Ms. Hill lost a lot of people with Unplugged. It sold 1.5 million copies worldwide, which sounds okay until you remember that Miseducation has sold over 19 million copies. She lost about 92.1% of her buying public from her first solo album to the next. Which means, if you’re reading this, and you bought her first album, there’s at least a 92.1% chance you didn’t buy her second. You may not have even listened to her second. You might just remember turning to MTV Unplugged one night and seeing Lauryn forgetting words and messing up on guitar and having her voice crack when she sang. It was jarring, especially when compared to her previous image. But enough time has passed; now the weight of your expectations is gone. Give Unplugged a listen. We’ve been patiently waiting on the next Lauryn Hill album, but it very well may be the album you’re waiting to hear is the one you never gave a chance.