I know this is a sports blog, but the beauty of having your own blog is that you can branch out to other subjects every now and then.
With all due respect to MC Lyte, Salt N Peppa and Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill is the greatest female rapper of all-time. She spit rhymes with a passion and purpose that penetrated your soul. Her lyrics were intelligent and profound, replete with biblical references, Greek gods, pop culture, and tributes to musicians from Stevie Wonder to Paul McCartney, Miles Davis to Nina Simone, The Doors to James Taylor.
Listen to her raw power as she tears up the mic on Fugees songs “Family Business” and “The Score,” with biting lyrics like, “So while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone.” She could also slow it down and smooth it out as demonstrated on tracks like “Fu-Gee-La.” Unlike many emcees of her day, Hill wrote her own lyrics and didn’t resort to sexual overtures to sell her rhymes.
Did I mention that L-Boogie had a beautiful, raspy singing voice as well? Sure, she was irreverent and fiery, but she had soul. She harmonized on Fugees songs and dropped the memorable hook on Nas’s “If I Ruled the World,” though it was remakes of “Killing Me Softly” and “Too Good to Be True” which really showcased her range.
Lauryn’s initial success came with The Fugees, a hip-hop trio, which included cousins Wyclef Jean and Praswel Michel. They struck it big with their second studio album The Score, released in 1996, with the hit single “Ready or Not” and remakes of Roberta Flacks’s “Killing Me Softly” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” In 1997, Lauryn contributed to her then lover Wyclef Jean’s solo album The Carnival, lending her vocals to tracks “Guantanamera” and “Seng Fezi.”
A year later, L-Boogie displayed her versatility and creativity on her own solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” brilliantly combined the Doo Wop melodies she grew up listening to with a hip-hop back beat. Coupled with a classic video depicting the two eras represented in the song, “That Thing” became a musical sensation.
Though Hill rapped on a few songs, even bouncing back and forth between rapping and singing on “Everything is Everything,” the album represented a shift towards her vocal side, most evident in the stripped down sound of “Nothing Even Matters.” Lauryn was nominated for 10 Grammy’s in 1999 for Miseducation, winning five of them.
In addition to her skills on the microphone, Hill possessed a simplistic beauty and undeniable charisma that was tailor-made for the big screen. She landed a starring role in the movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and by 1999, the endorsement deals were rolling in. At age 22, she’d established herself as one of the most talented and versatile artists of her generation and appeared to be on the brink of superstardom.
Then… Poof… She was gone. The sultry songstress disappeared from the public eye.
She withdrew from projects she had committed to, including a prominent role in the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, turned down many other acting and endorsement opportunities, stopped recording and refused to grant interviews.
Like most of her fans, I waited for a follow-up to Miseducation, but there was no studio album to come. In 2002, Hill released a live album, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, which contained moments of splendor, such as her fiery spoken words on, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” but the live performance was raw and choppy. Her voice cracked and lacked the confidence which had once punctuated her rhymes. She lost her place mid-song several times.
The lyrics and tenor of the songs were introspective and filled with despair, revealing a woman desperate to escape the trappings of fame, as reflected in the catchy tune “I Get Out.” Her rambling digressions between songs about God, freedom and following one’s own path fueled rumors that she had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Various theories surfaced to explain L-Boogie’s disappearance. The simplest explanations were that she was unable or unwilling to deal with fame or that she retreated from the spotlight in order to concentrate on motherhood. There were rumors that she fell under the influence of a cult-like religious figure. Some fans blamed her unconventional and reportedly volatile relationship with Rohan Marley, son of reggae legend Bob Marley, who fathered 5 of her 6 children.
Lauryn has been very reluctant to address her seclusion and lack of new material. The few times she has publicly discussed her isolation, she attributed it to her unwillingness to compromise herself for the superficiality of the industry, as well as a desire to grow as a person.
She has teased her fans with occasional performances, surprise appearances at other artists’ concerts and sporadic talk of a comeback album. In 2005, she briefly reunited with The Fugees for a European Tour, but before long Wyclef and Pras grew tired of her erratic behavior and decided they could not tolerate her any longer. She routinely skipped rehearsals, showed up late for shows and insisted on being called “Ms. Hill.” Clef publicly questioned her mental stability.
Lauryn’s physical appearance at public outings over the past several years lent weight to Wyclef’s claim. Several times she took the stage looking like a clown, with excessive amounts of make-up and bright, baggy clothing, or just appeared unkempt, in raggedy clothes, with her afro untamed.
Hill has indicated that a comeback album would be coming soon for a couple of years now, yet repeated delays and her strange behavior have led to a skepticism reminiscent of the muted anticipation of Guns N’ Roses long-awaited Chinese Democracy album. She attributed the latest delay in her comeback plans to the birth of her sixth child last fall.
As difficult as it is to believe, it has been 14 years since the release of Miseducation. Other virtuoso vocalists like Alicia Keys and Adele have filled the void left by Lauryn’s absence. Even if Hill is mentally stable and focused on a new album, there is no telling whether her voice has held up over the years or if she can still tap into the mystical ingenuity that burns inside the great artists. The odds are against it.
But, like many of her fans, I hold out hope that L-Boogie will breathe fire into a microphone once again. I’m still waiting for Lauryn.