It's funny how money change a situation
Miscommunication leads to complication
My emancipation don't fit your equation…
Some wan' play young Lauryn like she dumb
—Lauryn Hill, "Lost Ones"
—Scroll back a decade, and there was Lauryn Hill—top of the world, Ma!—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 divas—Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna—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 ones—Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, and, to a lesser extent, Erykah Badu—who find a way to live within the world of fame, being in it, but not of it. But then there are the sensitive souls—D'Angelo, Maxwell, Lauryn—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 riches—record label suits, peddlers of "the capitalist system"—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 woman—she was 23 at the time—she was acutely aware of the downfalls of being a superstar: "They'll hail you then they'll nail you," she sings in "Superstar," "…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 Miseducation—and ran.
Clue No. 2: Her consuming relationship with religion. After she pulled her disappearing act, Lauryn would reappear from time to time, announcing in interviews that she'd met a spiritual leader. She told MTV Online, "I met someone who has an understanding of the Bible like no one else I ever met in my life. I just sat at [his] feet and ingested pure scripture for about a year." Reports later named the man as a mysterious figure who called himself Brother Anthony. According to Rolling Stone, Lauryn turned her life inside out for Brother Anthony, firing her management team in the process. Brother Anthony was affiliated with no particular religious organization or church; Pras, Lauryn's Fugees' compatriot, described their relationship as "real cult sh—."
But even before Brother Anthony, Lauryn's strong connection to spirituality is evident throughout Miseducation, from her description of an angel coming to visit her to announce her pregnancy in "Zion," to her references to Psalm 73 and her name-checking Cain and Abel, Moses and Aaron and Ethiopia's holy churches in Lalibela.
You could get the money
You could get the power
But keep your eyes on the final hour
At times, she veers into know-it-all territory, preaching and scolding with the finger-wagging zeal of the young and the newly converted: Now hear this mixture/Where hip-hop meets scripture. She's St. Lauryn, a modern-day Joan of Arc doing battle with the evildoers, the patron saint of hip-hop. A martyr who would later go to the Vatican and take on the Pope.
People feel Lauryn Hill from Newark to Israel
And this is real
So I keep makin' the street's ballads
While you lookin' for dressin' to go with your tossed salad
Clue No. 3: Her love life was always a little "crazy." What singer/songwriter hasn't made art from the detritus of a ruined love affair? Lauryn was no exception: She'd experienced heartbreak, and it rocked her. Hard. Word was that she and Wyclef Jean, the third Fugee, had been involved in a tortured liaison that began before he was married and continued through his marriage. Again and again, a duplicitous lover figures in Lauryn's lyrics, a man for whom love is something that he giveth and taketh away.
As painful as this thing has been
I just can't be with no one else
See I know what we got to do
You let go and I'll let go too
'Cause no one's hurt me more than you
And no one ever will
Like many a blues woman before her, Lauryn lets her pain saturate her art. Even the music aches. In "Ex-Factor," she sounds tormented, pleading and entreating, her voice hoarse and straining at the pipes, repeating over and over again, "cry for me /cry for me/you said you'd die for me." Her fragility is palpable. You get the feeling that whatever went down in the Fugees' studio, it did damage.
Even after she broke things off with Wyclef, she couldn't escape the drama. Reports surfaced claiming that the man she called her husband, Rohan Marley, son of Bob, father of her five children, was technically still married to someone else. This month, Marley told People that he and Lauryn were "spiritually together" but that they were not married and did not live together. (He lists himself as single on his MySpace page.) Still, he told the magazine that Lauryn keeps creating music, and the ones—yes, Wyclef, he's talking about you—who say she's crazy are hypocrites who are just out to use her.
"She writes music in the bathroom, on toilet paper, on the wall," says Marley. "She writes it in the mirror if the mirror smokes up. She writes constantly. This woman does not sleep."
Which is too bad. She's got the benefit of 10 years' worth of life experience to cull from now—partnership/mommyhood/love—you can't help but wonder what her music would sound like today. Would we get a finely tuned, mature artist who's marinated in life and who can take the philosophy and wisdom of "Miseducation" one step further? Or would we get the L-Boogie of her MTV Unplugged CD, the one who sounds ragged and off-key, muttering between songs, ""I'm crazy and deranged. . . . I'm emotionally unstable"? To listen to Miseducation today is to marvel at her talent, and to mourn what woulda, coulda, shoulda been.
Teresa Wiltz is a writer in the Style section of the Washington Post.