Lauryn Hill: on eschewing the box

Music takes up a big part of my days. Walking around without my earbuds makes me uneasy, probably a signal of an unhealthy relationship with gadgets, but that is a story for another day. Today, I want to talk about one of my favorite musicians; Lauryn Hill.  On the celebration of the 20th anniversary of her Grammy-winning debut solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, she still informs the popular music culture available to us. She has been sampled by everyone from Drake to Cardi B, but Lauryn Hill was introduced to me as the lead of the rap group the Fugees. A girl that was killing it in a hip-hop landscape filled with male artists, she was an unlikely heroine to my young imagination.   

Lauryn Hill would exit the Fugees to release a solo debut. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her sole full-length album, scored top hits and earned her five Grammys, including the highly coveted album of the year. The album has gone on to inspire records, documentaries, and books. It’s author is once celebrated and vilified. After producing this work of art at 23 years old, with its subsequent success, Hill faced scrutiny in her self-imposed exile and decision to pull away from the rigors of fame to focus on raising her six children.

Miseducation, which prophecies on fame, artistry and the music industry reflects her own career trajectory and her refusal to be pinned down and put into a box of what is to be expected from a young successful female artist. Through the years, Hill’s disappearance and her chronic lateness to shows has earned her skepticism. She served a three-month prison term for tax evasion in 2013, she has been accused of not properly crediting Miseducation producers, and now further allegations of not paying musicians that she had hired for gigs. The fans of her work have put her on pedestals and knocked her off of them, especially in the wake of a public that demands that our public figures, inclusive of artists, be socially conscious.

Still, with her erratic behavior Miseducation broke the mold. The songs compiled within drew from different genres like soul, reggae, and hip-hop, she defied simple categorization, and this extended to the subject matter of her music that showed a more diverse representation of black women. Years later, Hill is still reworking, and rearranging songs off Miseducation, oftentimes to the chagrin of her long-time fans, but maybe that is the whole point. Hill presages on Miseducation the fickleness of the fame cycle and her refusal to play by the rules.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a declaration of independence, and through that lens it can be seen as a result of Hill’s decision to leave the Fugees, and stake a claim for herself as a maestro rapper-singer-producer. Her determination to embody elusiveness and free herself from the pressures of her celebrity life came through a form of self-mythologizing that would ironically crystallize an image she hated. An image that she knew was impossible to live up to.

On Miseducation, her lyrics highlight how she feels caught between establishing that image of self-righteousness and also a humility of being a complex and often contradictory human being. That delicate balancing act was untenable, but maybe all we ever wanted from her and all we should ever want from her is the self-awareness she showed in navigating this space with us through her music.

 

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