How does a Millennial who was a child when her career-defining album was released relate to Ms. Lauryn Hill?
The crowd for Ms. Lauryn Hill at the UNO Lakefront Arena recently countered the assumption that all her fans are nostalgic, middle-aged women. The former Fugees singer has attracted a new, younger generation of fans who interpret and respond to her seminal album through a different lens. Hill’s millennial fan base (of which I'm a member) hears The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in a musical and cultural framework that’s decidedly 2018. Hill’s Millennial fans realize they missed the apex of her career, including the breakthrough when she was deemed to be the next big thing in hip-hop.
Different versions of Ms. Lauryn Hill existed before we did. We weren’t there to see her as “Wyclef’s side girl,” the woman who broke away from The Fugees to find her voice, or the spiritual seeker who fell into a religious niche under the guidance of mentor Brother Anthony. By the time her celebrity came into our consciousness, she was already labeled the “difficult” woman, the “mysterious woman,” an enigma whose elusive personal life dumbfounded longtime fans.
Her quiet disappearance from music after Miseducation--save the unpopular 2001 MTV Unplugged release--left the world asking, What happened to Lauryn Hill?
We were toddlers in 1998 when Miseducation entered the world. We were far too young (I was 15 months old) to feel the strength of her musical prowess and the cultural weight behind her impact, nor were we in a position to appreciate the touching sensibility of “Zion” and the emotional vulnerability of “Ex-Factor.” We missed the moment when her glossy, soulful control of “Killing Me Softly” put her on the map as a standout female vocalist, one who wasn’t overreaching when she covered Roberta Flack. The song earned The Fugees another Grammy on top of winning Best Rap Album and Best Album for The Score in 1997.
Hill’s quest for creative and personal self-realization prompted her to leave the group to distinguish herself as an artist separate from The Fugees, separate from her complicated romance with Wyclef Jean: and the result was Miseducation. The critical acclaim that followed hoped she was coming up to be hip-hop’s “it girl”. Rolling Stone called the album “one of the most personal, provocative R&B narrative of the decade.” A Time hip-hop issue in 1999 hailed it as “one of the first gunshots of hip-hop art the world is gonna get.” The late ‘90s was an exciting moment for hip-hop, ripe for change with industry observers betting on who was going to take the genre to the next level. Lauryn Hill was positioned to be one of its revolutionary leaders.
My generation didn’t see her during this period. We never got the chance to hang our messianic hopes on the Lauryn Hill that could be. We jumped in as teenagers already well into the new century. By then, Hill wasn’t making headlines for her music but for the numerous controversies that tattered her reputation. In 2003, she openly bashed the Catholic Church during a show in Vatican City. Following a Brooklyn show in 2007, a Village Voice article ripped her to pieces, calling her rapping “incredibly painful” and suggested she was losing her mind. In 2013, she checked into prison for tax fraud. In 2016, she pulled a no-show at the Grammys. This fall, she suddenly yanked Nas and Santigold from her tour sans explanation.
Musically, she’s been mysteriously dormant. We listen to her in 2018. In an era that’s post-Fugees, essentially post-MTV, where pop music and hip-hop are nearly synonymous. In an era of #MeToo, Third Wave Feminism is yesterday’s news. #BlackGirlMagic is casting a transformative spell and new conversations around race and identity politics now bleed into every pop culture context. Today, she is Ms. Lauryn Hill at her own insistence, and it’s impossible to hear or see her like it’s 1998.
Twenty years ago, Hill made and validated space for women of color in the music world, at a time when such space was in short supply. The Lauryn Hill our generation inherited who defies industry expectations, is seen as an outlaw, and demand to be called the regal “Ms. Hill”. Her rebellious image, her defiant spirit, her tremendous talent, her broken press reputation, her controversies and dramas on top of dramas--all of it is taken as a triumph as far as her millennial fans are concerned. They see her as a “messy” woman in the most proud, expectation-shattering, liberating sense of the word.
The Ms. Lauryn Hill they know is a free-spirit creative, notorious for relationship scandals, and missed shows who has controlling and selfish tendencies and who disputes all criticism and fiercely denies any attack on her image. Gossip headlines love her and the press loves to hate her. She battled against the mold that tried to shape her--all while staying behind a cloud of mystery.
There are a few explanations as to why the millennial generation might be so ready for Ms. Lauryn Hill. Perhaps it’s the allure of a mysterious, erratic woman who doesn’t care how the outside world sees her. Maybe we’re looking for a retro feminist icon, a woman of color who refused to submit to the boxes she was put into way before mainstream pop culture was even questioning them. And then there’s the allure of her limited catalogue. When we listen to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill today, we hear it as her masterpiece, a single flame flickering of genius, without the tainted aftertaste of artistic decline suffered by other musical giants who continued to release music that had to be awkwardly contextualized to fit next to their best music.
Maybe we let the controversies slide past us because we didn’t have any investment in her success to begin with. The Lauryn Hill our generation is invested in is a person who doesn’t have to prove herself to the industry. In fact, we see her “difficultness” not as a flaw but as a source of power. In a Millennial context of Fourth Wave Feminism and #BlackLivesMatter, her “bossy” tendencies are interpreted as badassery. To younger fans, her anti-conformist tendencies are seen as a kind of reclamation. The Hill we hear is an outlaw in the music industry, cast aside for choosing to have a career of her own design.
In more ways than one, Hill's 20th Anniversary Tour acknowledges the sociopolitical orientation of Hill’s younger fan base. The visual spectacle of the show paid homage to her personal mantra of community healing in light of recent outrage over racial violence. Documentary slideshows highlighted black communities and used imagery to draw connections between the Civil Rights Movement and the struggles of today, relocating 20 year-old songs into 2018 as a call to worship for community healing. Part of Hill’s Millennial appeal is how she uses her work as an activist vehicle. We want musicians who show up when it’s time to speak out. We want artists who are on board with the crucial conversations around race and gender happening here and now, on Twitter and in real life.
In a playful nod to the state of today’s hip-hop, Hill closed the show with an audience-pleasing remix of Drake’s “Nice for What,” which samples her own “Ex-Factor”. She rapped over Drake with a wink, joking but completely serious when reminding us that’s it’s just a sample and she’s the classic. In real time, old world hip-hop playfully faced off against new world hip-hop. Hill wedges herself comfortably in between the symbolic past and the urgent present, owning the mark she made on music while still showing she can roll with today’s crowd.
This wasn’t the only time this year that Hill’s music has come in contact with today’s chart-toppers. Cardi B received Hill’s blessing to sample “Ex-Factor” in her single “Be Careful.” Cardi B is undoubtedly rap’s woman of the moment. She’s made a career out of being a badass, no-bullshit diva, and she’s only 26. With her breakout solo “Bodak Yellow”, she became the first female rapper with a Number One solo since Lauryn Hill. That isn't to say that Cardi B is the Lauryn Hill of 2018, but it's hard not to notice that the impulse that drives Millennials towards Lauryn Hill isn’t wildy dissimilar from the one that drives them toward Cardi B. Generations collide neatly within a space where female defiance is not only accepted but necessary in a #MeToo moment.
As young women today find themselves with the task of telling their stories and making their voices heard above all the chatter hoping to drown them out, there’s never been a greater need for a queen to keep the ball rolling. Young women look towards both the past and the present for female rebel icons who can capture the mood of this moment, who embody anger and empowerment. Lauryn Hill holds all of that in the weight of her voice and the rebellion of her image. We don't see her in a showbiz narrative, so we don't need her to release another album to fulfill our wishes. We can just keep putting Miseducation on repeat on Spotify, over and over again, and it, paired with who she is today, says everything we need.