Lauryn Hill -- Buyer Beware
In retrospect, it was my fault.
All the signs were there, loitering for the better part of the aughts, screaming out like nicotine warnings from the Surgeon General.
“Hazardous For Money Holder”
“May Complicate Checking Account”
“Purchase At Your Own Risk”
I should’ve seen this coming from satellite distances. I should’ve mentally prepared myself for another craptastic outing from one of the most important, yet consistently most disappointing performing artists in recent Hip Hop history.
I should’ve predicted that Lauryn Hill would shit the proverbial bed -- again -- during her highly anticipated set at the 2010 Rock The Bells Festival.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I trekked to New York City’s Governor’s Island packing a pocket full of unqualified expectations, impatiently awaiting my first live show from the Illest Femcee Ever.
And to say Lauryn Hill is anything short of the Illest Femcee Ever is asinine. It’s more than just the indelible nature of The Score and her solo, seminal offering, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. It’s more than her pristine delivery and ridiculous word play and Mike Tyson-type power punchlines like “even after all my logic and my theories / I’ll add a mutherfucker so you ignant n***** hear me” that seamlessly ooze into the air like lyrical incense yet remain potent enough to floor the most elite of emcees. It’s more than her world class vocals and her ability to touch heavenly octaves, stirring souls and shaking asses simultaneously, through every syllable sung.
It’s more than that.
Lauryn Hill’s resolute standing in Hip Hop is cemented in what her music represents. At a time when females in rap subjected themselves to extreme sexual exploitation (some more willingly than others) as a means to progress in a male dominated and rapidly commercializing industry, L Boogie sold over twelve million copies of her 1998 solo album by embodying an image overtly contra to the status quo.
She wasn’t boasting about how she can “make a Sprite can disappear into her mouth”. She was imploring women everywhere to “watch out [because] some guys are only about that thing”.
Through her uplifting hymns, visceral rhymes and the rare creative trifecta of singer/songwriter/producer, Hill defied industry pigeon holing, crafted timeless music that connected with people worldwide, sold millions of records and earned millions of dollars. She graced Time Magazine and Newsweek and landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. She broke all kinds of Grammy records for nominations and awards. She became an international sensation while staying true to herself and the integrity of women everywhere. She kept it real.
She kept it Hip Hop.
But a funny thing happened on the way to ubiquity.
Before Lauryn’s stardom swept the globe, her own personal sideshow crept into the rumor mill. Reports of a torrid love triangle between fellow Fugee, Wyclef Jean -- whom she “clandestinely dated” for years while in the group -- and former University of Miami linebacker, Rohan Marley, raised eyebrows across the industry. When word of Hill’s pregnancy spread -- as this 2003 Rolling Stone investigation describes -- “the Fugee camp wondered whether the baby was Marley’s or Jean’s”.
At the same time, a rift formed within the group. Following the success of The Score, Pras and Lauryn supported Clef’s solo project, The Carnival, “emotionally and creatively”, with both members making guest appearances. But when Lauryn began working on a project of her own, Clef failed to return the same support. Not only did Clef’s disinterest frustrate Lauryn, but reportedly, it drove her to stamp an end on the creative battle the two maintained since first teaming up by crafting the ultimate album, free and clear of her bandmate’s assistance. That album was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and not so ironically, it settled the score.
But where Lauryn Hill of the 1990s was exalted for her timeless talent and trend bucking bravado while her personal demons remained on the fringe of her reputation, "Ms. Hill" of the 2000s has pulled a complete image 180. Her otherworldly talent is now on the outskirts of her career, supplanted by a completely puzzling void of new music, a perplexing array of enigmatic (re: poor) showings and enough speculation into her personal life to render her timeless music almost an afterthought.
Her 2001 MTV Unplugged No.2 “performance”, for example, offered less of the empowered individual who exuded confidence in every bar previously and more of a broken spirit embattled by the confines of extreme success. Not only was her unhinged performance released as a twenty-two track double disk that, to this day, remains a commercial failure (moving less than 600k units in eight years); not only was it contextually lathered in self-loathing and industry resentment and depressing enough to invoke thoughts of suicide from the listener -- but from a talent perspective, Ms. Hill appeared to be a fraction of her former self. Her voice was excessively raspy, if not broken throughout, and her acoustic guitar playing was overtly amateurish, seemingly relying on the same three chords for the duration of the album.
And that was just the beginning.
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