Lauryn Hill rose to fame in the mid 1990s due to the success of the Fugees – the hip-hop trio which consisted of herself, Wyclef Jean and Pras. In 1996, the release of their second album The Score raised the bar for hip-hop, while simultaneously giving the people of Haiti a voice within mainstream hip-hop. However, a year later, the trio went their separate ways to pursue solo projects after the end of a stormy relationship between Lauryn and Wyclef.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Little did we know, Lauryn’s next solo project was to be one of the most important moments in hip-hop, ever. In August 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill descended on to the world.
The Miseducation was the gateway into Lauryn’s refreshingly honest relationship with her fans: both as a songwriter and as a performer. This album is an unapologetic, unfeigned voyage into the realm of Ms Hill’s world at the time, dealing with content matter such as heartbreak, her rise to fame, motherhood, and the perils of young inner-city America. She delves into these topics whilst weaving in references to religion and spirituality.
Lauryn’s solo debut was a catalyst used to bring ‘conscious’ hip-hop to the forefront of mainstream music. The masterful arrangement of this album combined elements of R&B, soul, gospel, hip-hop and reggae. She shepherded hip-hop into the masses to compete on a world stage. The world was starting to open its ears and pay attention to hip-hop. In 1998, Lauryn was crowned the first hip-hop artist and female to win five Grammy Awards. To be fair, 1998 was a big year for seminal hip-hop albums: Outkast’s Aquemini, Jay-Z’s Vol 2. Hard Knock Life, Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, plus Black Star’s epynonymous album and a personal favourite of mine: DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot but, as to be expected in the hip-hop game, they were all men. Lauryn was killing the competition among her male counterparts so much that she was placed in a league of her own.
On the surface the fame could seem very attractive but “her solo career wasn’t based on ‘I wanna do an album,'” says Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson, “it was based on not being Wyclef’s side girl.” The success may have easily been too big a pill to swallow. Could that be why this was her only studio album?
MTV Unplugged 2.0
2001 saw her release an unplugged album, titled MTV Unplugged 2.0, which Rolling Stone dubbed as a “public breakdown”, in which she openly declared her struggles, both personally and as an artist. This album sees Ms Hill at the height of her frankness with her fans and the world. This honesty is arguably what led her to recoil from the industry. Fans started to feel like they knew her, like she owed something to them, and perhaps as if they owned her in the same way they owned a copy of her album.
“Artists make art for themselves. Art is an honest expression. Artists who pander to their fans by trying to make music “for” their fans make empty, transparent art. The true fan does not want you to make music for them, they want you to make music for you, because that’s the whole reason they fell in love with you in the first place.” – Talib Kweli
Shortly after this release, Ms Hill took a step out of the limelight. Based on her exit piece, the “public breakdown” speculations arose that she wanted to focus on motherhood and was emotionally drained by the music industry.
To draw a parallel between Ms Hill and the late, great Nina Simone: releasing politically-charged music with such a high profile can be difficult with tabloids and celebrity culture out to attack an outspoken and controversial artist’s personal character. Thus came the rumours that Lauryn was a racist and was beginning to lose the plot.
Ms Hill slowly made her return to the stage in 2010 with some erratic performances and two years later she was charged with tax evasion and was sentenced to three months in prison. Since her release, she has performed numerous times and has suffered a barrage of abuse from her so-called fans and been booed off stage.
There are rumours that claim Lauryn was forced to sell the rights to her only studio album while in financial difficulty and can no longer perform her songs from this album conventionally. Whether this is true or not is besides the point. However, an artist’s decision about whether or not to perform their songs is entirely their decision, regardless of the fans’ expectations. Many fans are disappointed when she performs The Miseducation in the style of jungle and reggae beats. We seem to forget our place as consumers: taking what she has chosen to present to us. Time moves on and artists change – we can either respect that or keep it moving if we don’t like it.
We have had some unofficial releases since the Unplugged Album, including 2014’s Black Rage in response to police brutality in the States which made heads turn worldwide after the unlawful murders of Ferguson’s Michael Brown and many, many more. This is reminiscent of a young Miss Simone becoming increasingly politically charged. As we heard from Mississippi Goddam, she later defines an artist’s duty to “reflect the times” they are living through.
Admittedly, however, this is a heavy load to bear, and those who choose to do so must be admired for their efforts. So, the next time you’re asking yourself ‘What Happened, Ms Hill (or any other artist-meets-activist)?’, think about the responsibility this comes with – wanted or not. Consider the public scrutiny these artists are constantly under, facing tabloid vultures and keyboard warriors seeking to humiliate, demonise and pick apart their personal character.