Ms. Lauryn Hill’s Last Reprieve: In Defense of Legacy
With the 20th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it’s time we examine how the artist’s superstar underdog story transitioned into an unfair tale of music’s hero-turned-villain.
Last month, LeBron James revealed his regret in naming his oldest son LeBron James Jr., citing the worry of imposing too much, too prematurely on the 13-year-old’s unformed legacy.
Perhaps his regret signifies the parallels between the personal pressure he hoped to not place on his son and the public pressure that was once placed on him, earlier in his career.
Writer and comedian Larry Wilmore and sports analyst Bill Simmons delved into the early career and real-time legacy of the athlete on an episode of the podcast Black on the Air.
They reflected on the period from 2003, when James joined the Cleveland Cavaliers as the first overall draft pick, to 2010 when he left the team to join the Miami Heat.
“LeBron was a superstar underdog — which is a great position to be in,” Wilmore said. “When you’re young, it’s fantastic because you’re going to have all the expectations in front of you. Now, he has the legacy in back of him that he gets to be a superstar underdog again. So, there’s more forgiveness for outcomes. Before, he was a prisoner of those outcomes. It affected the way he interacted with the press and everything. You’re going to see a more free LeBron.”
Wilmore was alluding to LeBron James’ early years in Miami, when he faced criticism for having left Cleveland — 40 minutes away from his hometown, Akron — without winning an NBA championship. In Miami, he created the Big Three, a superteam co-starring Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. During this period, LeBron deliberately, but unfittingly, transitioned into a villain-like figure. He let Wade lead the way and take control during press conferences. In the 2011 finals against the Dallas Mavericks, he played terribly, averaging only 17 points per game, losing in six. (After this game he had one of his most memorable press conference appearances, defiantly saying: “All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.”
And then things shifted. He won back to back championships and the slate was wiped clean. He opened up again, appearing to be more honest and vocal. The LeBron James legacy had been solidified.
That framing is reminiscent of Lauryn Hill’s story — a 20-something-year-old mother at the crux of a messy schism between a successful run with ex-bandmates and her individual creative pursuits, navigating a period in rap music that was almost fully antithetical to her art. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill exceeded the expectations that befell the inception of her solo career as she became the dark horse in the race that lapped past the finish line and into first place.
If LeBron James was able to come full circle, it’s a wonder if Ms. Hill be endowed with a chance to do the same, as we bear witness to the second iteration of her “superstar underdog” moment right now.
In recent, her career has been reduced to a talking point for believers turned skeptics turned critics caught up in one-dimensional analyses of her truancy to shows. Her artistry — the reworking of her classic songs— has been re-envisioned as not performing the coveted cosplay of what the former star was thought to be. Her business persona — firing and rehiring band members, rehearsals, and demanding to be referred to as Ms. Hill — is pinned as unreasonably high maintenance, with tinctures of racial and gendered double standards cloaked in a specific kind of vitriol. Her presence in music is being revisited with new eyes and ears, as the antiquated social standard of the album’s time clash with our current cultural landscape.
So, in 2018, we hearken back to the sentiment of time when the visage of a fresh-faced singer and MC eclipsed her two male counterparts in The Fugees to forge her own identity; in an industry set on deciding for her, we find ourselves asking again, who is Lauryn Hill?
The question prompts a more critical conversation on some of the attacks on Lauryn Hill. Since her retreat and then return to the public eye, her legacy has transformed from that superstar underdog story to an unfair tale of music’s hero turned villain. It’s time we rewrite that narrative.
In 2016, Questlove suggested Ms. Hill may be facing “the embarrassment of now being a one album legacy artist and the possibility of not mattering anymore in this disposable society. People will kill something before it grows.”
But Lauryn Hill is more than a one-album legacy artist.
Legacies are like master recordings; ownership is an everlasting battle that sees one too many artists die as casualties before they ever get a chance to win. And if her career was facing death by the hands of fans and critique’s lack of faith, patience, or interest, let this moment in time be her latest reprieve.
The final day of the 2018 Pitchfork Festival last month marked the return of Ms. Lauryn Hill and a highly-anticipated performance, as part of her tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of her debut. But her performance that night — like the majority of the past decade’s coverage on her – was prefaced by doubt. Many questioned whether or not she’d show up on time, or whether or not she’d show up at all, and whether she was ever as talented of an artist and as paramount of a force in music as the world thought her to be.
Her performance that night in Chicago’s Union Park was a solid set. If perfection comes with time, Hill’s voice has aged to its zenith. The artist powered through over an hour of music with her strong vocals as the only constant that anchored her set of unfamiliar renditions of her classic records. During her set, she delivered a speech in which she explicitly defined her notion of legacy:
“Most people don’t know, but there was a tremendous amount of resistance when I made this album. It was my first time making a solo recording. It was my first time outside of [The Fugees]… People were skeptical. I remember, I ended up recording some of the album in New Jersey. I ended up recording half of the album in Jamaica. But there was this pulse, there was this urge, there was this charge. I felt this responsibility. Because, yes, this album was about my life, it was about my experience, but it was also about sharing the love of music — of bridging a generational gap for an entire generation of people.”
“We have to remember that the people who came before us struggled to make music as authentic as they possibly could…. They fought hard. And I grew up with that legacy. I grew up with that musical tradition in me, and I felt a responsibility to soldier through the adversity to deliver to my generation a sound that said that we are part of a magnificent continuum. A legacy that can’t be bought, can’t be sold, can’t be compromised. And must, must continue on.”
With Miseducation, she was able to market her message without equivocation or posturing. This was Lauryn Hill, the artist, the woman, the mother, the student, in full effect. Of all her skill sets, singing, acting, songwriting, instrumentation, rapping was one of her most powerful. But she didn’t “transcend” hip-hop in that blanket, condescending way people use to describe black artists who soar beyond scope of view. At that time, she defined and defied what hip-hop was.
We know how seismic of an impact the album has made on the music industry as a whole. Its personal and political messages, its storied spiritual statements, its genre-uniting framework, and timeless tunes that have prompted its heralding by the highest of gatekeepers— from the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, to the Grammy Academy, to the prominent women in music who’ve succeeded Hill.
It’s clear that the project is one of the most celebrated and accoladed albums of all time. But, as its 20th anniversary arrives, what’s unclear is whether the artist is still as celebrated as the art.
It seems the world wants her to fall back in line, be on time, sound the same as she did 20 years ago, and to perform her allegiance, both on and off stage, to the daunting feats of fame that she sought to escape after Miseducation’s success. In 2001, when she performed “Adam Lives in Theory” off her live album, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, she breaks to speak to the audience and says, “Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. And I’m just retired from the fantasy part.”
Now, during her live shows, she’s been known to break down and rebuild the songs from Miseducation. Whether her opting to perform reworked versions of her songs stems from the infamous lawsuit surrounding writing credits and publishing rights for the album remains unconfirmed. But what goes unaccounted for is the very real possibility of this just being a choice by a mercurial musician invested in revisiting her seminal work with the fresh fervor of an artist pumping new life into an old vessel.
The festering frustration felt by fans over Hill’s maladjustment to criticism hasn’t vitiated the lasting effects of her music. Nostalgia just won’t allow for it. In the beginning, it was her message and magnetism that lead troves of listeners to love her. Now, it could be the power of nostalgia that permeates our collective minds and rewrites narratives of the past and present.
Or it could be that the public has an infinite amount of passes for her. Perhaps because her transgressions aren’t as heinous as those by the other public figures whose legacies are sanctified. Years from now, we may forgive and forget her faults, as the romanticized moments of our memories dictate we do so.
When a celebrity falls from grace — for whatever arbitrary reason that isn’t in line with our conditioned notions of how public figures should act, engage, and function with fame over time— the public’s Pavlovian response is to assign the hero-turned-villain trope to their legacy. It’s tired and lacks the nuance needed to contextualize people, history, and moments. And with a figure as important, complex, and worthy of redemption as Ms. Hill, it’s time we eradicate that practice.
Aretha Franklin died days before the 20th anniversary of Miseducation. It’s been the latest death to apprise us of the reality that there aren’t many black living legends left in music.
And as the world waits on the next Lauryn Hill, as it does with most stars despite how singular, it becomes more apparent that she can’t be superseded. So stands the definition of Ms. Lauryn Hill, who has vocalized time and time again— in song, in code, in words, and in action— what she wants her legacy to look like.
Though we’ve seen what unfolds when one attempts to control their own legacy, maybe it’s time we close the book on our projected, pre-written version of that script. On the contrary, maybe it’s time we give the pen back to Ms. Hill.