(Lauryn Hill, “The Sweetest Thing”)
I have a very long-standing one-sided love affair with Lauryn Hill. It goes back before the Fugees, even.
No, I discovered Lauryn in Sister Act 2. Yeah, that’s right, I proudly admit it. What, you haven’t SEEN it? Come on, she sings! She’s rebellious! Whoopi Goldberg mentors her while wearing a habit!
OK, it’s not that great a movie. But she’s LAURYN. She shines.
And then there were the Fugees. There was that cover of “Killing Me Softly.”
But in 1998 Lauryn blew us all away. I was 18 when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out. I was a pissed-off suburban whitegirl drowning my anger in punk rock and Tori Amos. I still didn’t think that hip-hop was for me—it felt like I was appropriating something, or maybe it was my own discomfort around issues of race.
There were of course the rumors that always come out around “conscious” rappers—that they hate white people, that Lauryn said she’d rather her kids starve to death than have a white person buy her album. They serve as such a convenient means of divide and conquer, don’t they?
But Lauryn was too huge for all of that. You couldn’t not love that album. As Latoya noted, Lauryn sounded like no one else. Her lyrics put my English-major vocabulary to shame, and her flow… well, there are no words. She wasn’t just one of the most amazing female rappers ever, she’s one of the best, period.
(I hate writing that sentence. I’ll know feminism has done its job when I never do it again.)
Was. Why do I keep using the word “was”? She’s not dead. She put out another album, an Unplugged album that most people find unlistenable and I never bought. And then she disappeared. Mostly. She showed up briefly in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, just enough to tease all of us who’ve missed her and missed something undefinable, something we couldn’t put our fingers on.
NPR recently managed to land an interview with Ms. Hill. The piece also talks to many people about what Lauryn meant, makes clear that for my generation—those just stepping into adulthood when that record hit, entering college, like me, or the workforce, or still struggling through high school—she was our voice.
I ask her what it feels like to sing, and she flips the question on me—”Well, what’s it like to hear me?” I tell her listening to her sing makes me feel both happy and sad. It feels like her voice comes from a higher place. I’m paraphrasing all the people I’ve interviewed about her.
“The feeling that you get,” she says, “I get first. I think you have a delayed experience with the feeling that I usually get. When I have a creative insight, there is a high. I think back in the day, I made music as much as I did because it made me feel so good. I think you could argue that there is a creative addiction—but, you know, the healthy kind.”
There’s audio with the interview—not a new track, but even listening to her talk can give you the chills.
There are rumors that she’s working on a new album, that this could be her comeback year. She’s been playing shows–apparently keeping fans waiting for three hours for her manicure and pedicure to dry—and we wait, breathless with anticipation. To wait three hours to hear Lauryn Hill? That seems like nothing after waiting years.
The thing she always brought us was confidence. Everything she did, from a bit movie role breaking Adrien Brody’s heart in Restaurant to her masterful solo record, seemed rooted in an unshakable feeling that she knew who she was and where she was going. “Lauryn, Baby, Use your head,” she sings of friends telling her when she discovered she was pregnant for the first time. But no one could tell her what to do.
Maybe that’s why the rumors that she had some kind of guru, why the thin sound of the Unplugged record, her honesty about her frailty, was so frightening. Better to believe that she was taking an extended hiatus because she was too good for us. That she was letting her nails dry.
The truth is, no artist owes us anything of themselves. I hate discussions about whether some artist or other has “sold out”—we’ve all gotta eat and until we figure out a way to structure a society that truly supports artists and allows them the space to breathe and create and doesn’t run them through a grinder that demands more sales now more more more, artists have to do what they have to do to survive. Sometimes that’s licensing a song to a car company for a commercial. Other times it’s disappearing after a brilliant record.
Lauryn Hill changed my life, though. She made me realize that it was OK for suburban whitegirl to love hip-hop, made me want to learn. She gave me songs to sing along to for heartache as much as songs to dance to. “Ex-Factor” can still, at the right moment, make me cry.
And one day, one August after that record came out, I was riding in a car with my on-again-off-again boyfriend Chris, the one whose heart I broke maybe almost as often as he broke mine, “Ex-Factor” came on and I leaned my head against the window, blinking away tears. My friend, who was driving, made some obnoxious remark and I answered “Chris would protect me.” I slipped my hand back behind the seat and tapped Chris’s leg, and he reached down and grabbed my hand and held it. The tears came for real then, but it was OK.
Was it the song? Who knows. The cinematic moment didn’t last long, but it gave me the strength to leave the emotionally abusive guy I was with at the time. To be OK with myself again. And that was enough.
Lauryn Hill, “Ex-Factor”