On the 10th anniversary of Miseducation, we mine the classic recording for clues about what went wrong.
The Confessions of Lauryn Hill
By Teresa Wilitz
Scroll back a decade, and there was Lauryn Hillâ€”top of the world, Ma!â€”clutching five Grammys and sending shoutouts to her babies, thanking them for not spilling stuff all over her designer duds, clearly overwhelmed by the massiveness of it all: “This is crazy,” she said, “’cause this is hip-hop music!”
If you were young and female and hip-hop, it couldn’t get more fabulous than Lauryn, more celebrated, more anointed, more praised. Ten Grammy nominations: No woman and no hip-hop artist, had managed to do that. Ever. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which was released 10 years ago this month, has since taken its place in the canon of popular music. Lauryn produced, wrote and arranged the album which mixed and matched rap, gospel, doo-wop, reggae, old-school soul and folkie fervor, touching a collective nerve in a way that no hip-hop album had done before. Rolling Stone declared The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill the album of the year; Spin pronounced Hill “Artist of the Year.” Fans compared her to Martin Luther King Jr.; Chuck D compared her to sunlight. She was, he said, “the Bob Marley of the 21st century.”
It didn’t hurt that she was beautiful and petite. It didn’t hurt that she didn’t seem to want any of it, that she wore the money and fame as lightly and ironically as she did those $3,500 frocks she rocked in the fashion rags.
And then, just like that, she all but disappeared. Only to pop up from time to time for a few random stage shows and a tense mini-reunion with the Fugees in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. (You can’t really count that half-hearted MTV Unplugged CD as anything, but more on that later.) Ten years after Miseducation, she remains one of hip-hop’s biggest mysteries, mocked for her eccentricities, her every misstep gossiped about in the afrosphere.
There are extroverted divasâ€”Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Rihannaâ€”who’ve mastered the art of peddling persona, pimping everything from clothing lines to perfume to American Express. The music seems almost incidental, just another unit to move. Then, too, there are the pragmatic onesâ€”Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, and, to a lesser extent, Erykah Baduâ€”who find a way to live within the world of fame, being in it, but not of it. But then there are the sensitive soulsâ€”D’Angelo, Maxwell, Laurynâ€”emotional tenderonis who seem to internalize their art, folks for whom fame is a beast. Lauryn, after receiving a big, wet kiss of affirmation, slammed the door on fame. Went into hiding. Not that we shouldn’t have expected it. In retrospect, listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill feels more like eavesdropping in on “The Confessions of Lauryn Hill.”
She was leaving clues for us all along the way.
Music is supposed to inspire
How come we ain’t getting no higher?
Now tell me your philosophy
On exactly what an artist should be
Should they be someone with prosperity
And no concept of reality?
Clue No. 1: She wasn’t feeling fame. The spotlight was something to be feared; the people who could bring you richesâ€”record label suits, peddlers of “the capitalist system”â€”were to be actively mistrusted. In Miseducation, she paints herself as a warrior woman, doing battle against the oppressive “They”: The ones who insisted that she get an abortion in “Zion.” The ones who “shoot you down in the name of ambition” in “Forgive Them Father.” Even as a very young womanâ€”she was 23 at the timeâ€”she was acutely aware of the downfalls of being a superstar: “They’ll hail you then they’ll nail you,” she sings in “Superstar,” “â€¦They’ll make you now then take you down.”
At times, her wariness borders on paranoia, with references to “wolves in sheep clothing” and warnings of “beware those who pretend to be brothers.” And indeed, later, producers/songwriters Johari Newton, Rasheem Pugh, Vada Nobles and Tejumold Newton would sue her, claiming that they were co-creators on the album and deserved both credit and a cut of the action. (She later settled with the group for a reported $5 million.)
So perhaps it’s no surprise that she took the estimated $25 million that she netted from the sales and merchandising of the triple-platinum-selling Miseducationâ€”and ran.
Clue No. 2: Her consuming relationship with religion. After she pulled her disappearing act,