(The Root) — From 1994 to around 2005, I was Lauryn Hill's biggest fan. I'm sure there are plenty of people who have laid claim to that title and would challenge my statement. I'm happy to battle it out by quoting lyrics and dueling with an encyclopedic knowledge of every quote Hill's ever given, interview ever done, acceptance speech ever made and concert ever performed. I was a student during most of those years, and I applied an interest to all things Lauryn Hill that was equal to what I gave my undergraduate and graduate courses.
Note the dates above. They are past tense. Last week Hill was released from jail after serving time for tax evasion. She was sentenced to months of home detention for the remainder of her sentence. According to TMZ, however, she has decided to go on tour instead, and the judge has approved it. And that made me wonder something I never thought I would: "Are people actually going to go see Lauryn Hill?"
I was surprised by my own thoughts because I credit Hill for my own inspiration to rip out my tracks and pop off my acrylic nails the day before I turned 18 because I didn't want to go into adulthood with "hair like Europeans/nails done by Koreans." (I haven't worn long, straight hair or fake nails since.)
I picked up a fondness for knee-length patchwork skirts and ripped T-shirts — Hill's attire in the "Everything Is Everything" video — which I wore long past the time they were considered fashionable. (I still have several of them in my closet that I don't wear but can't bring myself to part with.) As a college student, I emptied my checking account to buy a ticket to Hill's "Miseducation Tour" that was worth every penny. Hill's truth, passion and love for black women had Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall feeling like a church sanctuary.
Like I said, I had it bad. Bad enough to defend Hill's 2002 two-disc MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, which was a critical disaster and, though it went platinum, left a lot of folks largely underwhelmed. I once played the CD while driving with my mother, and she made it through the second song before she pushed the eject button.
I was livid. "Oh, my God! That's like turning the station on Luther!" I whined. Switching off Luther Vandross was an act that would be met with "consequences and repercussions" in our house. I pushed the CD back in.
Mom: "Um … but Luther can actually sing." She pushed the eject button again and remained unconvinced when I tried to sell her on the "soul" of the CD.
I'd bought the Unplugged album during a particularly bad time in my life and identified with what, from the perspective of happier times, now sounds like off-key depression backed by a plucky guitar. I still loved — and love — it for letting me know I wasn't alone in my personal struggles and because back then I loved all things Lauryn Hill.
That changed over the years as all the promises of a Fugees reunion or another solo album from Hill never came to fruition. I learned not to get my hopes up. Then her interviews started to sound weird. She had her personal demons — like all of us — undoubtedly, but then she wanted to be referred to as "Ms. Hill."
She seemed to carry a resentment for fans who imitated her style of dress, as if it weren't a form a flattery. I figured that her highly criticized relationship with her man was her business, but her concerts started to seem more like an afterthought than a composed set. Hill showed up chronically late — sometimes almost four hours — and unapologetic.
At a 2011 New York City concert where she took the stage after midnight for what had been advertised as an 8:30 show, fans booed. Hill told them, "Don't do that. That's disrespectful. I spent my entire 20s sacrificing my life to give you love. So when I hear people complain, I don't know what to tell you … I personally know I'm worth the wait." No, she's not.
Hill's latest single, "Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix)," was her first as part of a new record deal, one that she was rumored to sign for the money to pay her back taxes. The title and non-radio-friendly sound suggest a lack of effort and a hurried production — just like her concerts. If this is what's to come, I'll pass on this latest tour, too. Will you?