For a decade, we have held our collective breaths waiting for the return of the Lauryn Hill. For many of us, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill served as both Greek chorus and sound track to our young adulthoods. Now she's back with a national tour ahead of her, and adoring fans at the ready. But she's not the Lauryn we once knew.
I've carried Lauryn with me since I was 17. From the first time I heard her spit to the last exhaled inflection, I was hers. Though just one year older, she was the cooler big sister I wanted to be. And that face! That kinky halo of hair and her wide, deep-set eyes, full lips and cocoa-tinted skin — I was in love. For the first time, there was a celebrity who looked like me.
Before Lauryn, I loved hip-hop but often felt that hip-hop didn't love me. The men certainly didn't represent me, but I couldn't identify with the women, either. Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown were a lot more comfortable with their sexuality than I was in my early 20s. Half the time, I had no clue what the hell they were talking about. I'm embarrassed to say that Kim's line about swallowing a Sprite can in "The Jump Off" had to be explained to me in detail.
Lauryn was a suburban, middle-class girl like me and the girls I knew. She spoke and looked like us. She was us. I often joke that I didn't get cute until 1995, when the Fugees hit the scene and brothas found out it was OK to check for chocolate sisters with kinky hair and features that took over our entire faces. Lauryn's ability to fill her lyrics with literary references and old-soul anecdotes was refreshing to me, an aspiring writer and poet. The way she flipped her tongue around intricate cadences and mind-numbing verses took my breath away.
I carried Lauryn with me like a guide. She wore her heart on her sleeve, unafraid to push up those sleeves and show us the color of her heart. I felt like Lauryn and I were friends. I was thrilled to see her rocking high fashion and cultured locks at the same time. She was stiletto and steel, and I loved that the world was finally embracing me. I mean … her.
So when she took that first break in 2000, after the whirlwind success of Miseducation, I understood. She had so much on her thin shoulders, including women like me who expected her always to know the right thing to say. She was a new mother. She had taken over the world before she was 25. She needed to rest, and I welcomed that for her. We wanted her to be OK — while patiently awaiting her return.
And then she did. Tenuously at first. An awards show here, a surprise concert there. What we first noticed was how shocking her appearance was. Gone was the gracious glamour girl, and in her place, someone stripped of vanity — and, might I add, joy? "That's OK," I thought. "She can't be the person she was when she left."
I was a Lauryn apologist — or, as my friend Michael wrote in his blog, the Cynical Ones, I had LHDD: Lauryn Hill denial disorder. When her 2002 Unplugged album and special came out, I was disappointed. My friends were overjoyed and spoke of her depth and "Who cares?" attitude. All I heard were half-finished songs, three guitar chords and no regard for her audience. If she was just up there to perform for herself, well, why were we in the audience?
This was solidified when she took the stage at Def Poetry Jam some years ago. It was 2004, and I had just recorded my fourth appearance on the show. There was a buzz throughout the building that Lauryn was going to take the stage and read some poems. The excitement was palpable. The entire backstage was cleared out at Lauryn's request. Nobody was permitted back there but her "spiritual adviser," along with Mos Def and Dave Chappelle. (It's noteworthy to add that just a few weeks after this taping, Chappelle quit his successful show and performed his own disappearing act.)
When Lauryn took the stage, the audience was in a frenzy. I saw people crying and hugging themselves. A voice yelled out, "We love you, Lauryn!" And with a look that could have convinced summer it was winter, Lauryn responded, "You don't know me." The feeling that ran through my bones was chilling. No matter how much we loved her and for how long, Lauryn seemed to hate "us" now.
I desperately wanted to understand. I even wondered if there were mental health issues of which we were unaware. I wrote a poem last year empathizing with the changes she had gone through and her right as a human being to take a break and live her own life:
…did you hate how we wrapped ourselves/anaconda grip around your throat//Then demanded you sing for us … Like most of us/are you your only comfort/and catastrophe
I was still on her side.
Lauryn — I'm sorry, "Ms. Hill" — is now someone I don't recognize. Not because of her looks, or her music on some speed-metal unrecognizable gibberish. But because the person she seems to have become is someone I just plain don't like. She doesn't seem happy onstage. In fact, she seems downright angry. So why is she there?
Forget about the recent notoriously late appearances that leave audiences waiting, sometimes up to four hours. Or the complete disregard for her audience once she finally takes the stage. At her oft-written-about show in Brooklyn, N.Y., last month, Lauryn chastised the visibly upset crowd that had to wait hours for her to arrive. "I sacrificed my 20s for you … ," she said. "I personally know I'm worth the wait."
More than a decade ago, one album, just one, changed so many of us for the better. I'm sorry it seemed to change her for the worse. It was her decision to come back. We were already accustomed to her absence, and we still loved her. But now she's returned as a bitter, angry woman who cares so little about her audience and supporters that she turns up hours late and then blames them for being frustrated. Ten years ago Lauryn was "worth the wait." Now I think she needs more time to deal with the demons that are still holding on to her. We can wait.
Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born poet-writer and mental health advocate. She is currently working on a memoir documenting her life living with bipolar II disorder. Follow her on Twitter.