What does it say about "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" that despite her decade of tardiness, fans continue to come to see her live?

miseducation of lauryn hill cover art

[Updated] It’s a tribute to the enduring power of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that 20 years after its release and after at least a decade of a problematic relationship with getting to the stage, Ms. Lauryn Hill continues to be booked. She will return to New Orleans to play the Lakefront Arena October 3, and tickets go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. at Ticketmaster. 

On record, Hill said almost everything she had to say between 1994 when The Fugees released their debut album, Blunted on Reality, and 2002 when Hill released MTV Unplugged in 2002. That eight-year window is generous, though. Really, Hill got it done in two years and on two albums: The Fugees’ 1996 albumThe Score and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill from 1998. Pitchfork.com’s Kathy Iandoli described her as “a vocalist whose tone and texture was reminiscent of artists like Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone. Plus she rapped—better than most—and represented the flip side to the then-prevailing belief that female rappers needed to be sexual to resonate.”

When NPR published "Turning the Tables: The Top 150 Albums Made by Women," The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was number two, topped only by Joni Mitchell's Blue. Paula Mejia wrote of it, "The album, rife with Hill's biting rhymes and sharp turns of phrase, is a wonder from start to finish, from her smoldering duet with fellow R&B superstar Mary J. Blige 'I Used To Love Him' to the unapologetic, plucky 'To Zion,' in which Hill details how people discouraged her from having a child in order to further her career.

According to Stereogum’s Max Blau:

Hill wasn’t the first hip-hop artist to be personal, but she helped pioneer conscientious songwriting in the genre in a way that hadn’t existed before. Audiences once hesitant toward the rap’s explicit content warmed up to her heartfelt approach. On “To Zion” [from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill], Hill professed her unconditional love for her unborn son and discussed the sacrifices she made in spite of her blossoming career. She confronted failed romantic relationships on “Ex-Factor,” simultaneously acknowledging her self-worth and heartbreak. Hill preached empowerment throughout Miseducation while delving into religion, self-ambition, fame, and perspective. All along, she managed conveyed a deeper universal meaning that resonated beyond prior genre barriers.

NPR’s Zoe Chace similarly recalls Hill’s impact:

She's one of slickest rappers ever: Her rhymes are dexterous, spiritual, hilarious, surprising. Without a doubt, she was the best-looking rapper the world had ever seen. And Hill was a soul singer with a real old-school, almost militant, politic. The second single was Hill's cover of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly." That recording has never really gone away, and its success built the expectations for Hill's solo record to a fever pitch. Particularly to women and young girls who listened to her then, she was a revelation. There was steel in her voice when she rapped; she sang like she really cared about our hopeless crushes and our impotent rages, like she really loved us. We thought maybe we could grow up to be like her.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one of those rare albums about which the critical community and the marketplace spoke in one voice. It won awards and set sales records, and for whatever reason, that album ended a chapter of Hill’s story. She didn’t record a studio follow-up and largely disappeared from public view. In 2010, she carefully, vaguely explained her withdrawal from the public eye:

There were a number of different reasons. But partly, the support system that I needed was not necessarily in place. There were things about myself, personal-growth things, that I had to go through in order to feel like it was worth it. In fact, as musicians and artists, it's important we have an environment—and I guess when I say environment, I really mean the [music] industry, that really nurtures these gifts. Oftentimes, the machine can overlook the need to take care of the people who produce the sounds that have a lot to do with the health and well-being of society, or at least some aspect of society. And it's important that people be given the time that they need to go through, to grow, so that the consciousness level of the general public is properly affected. Oftentimes, I think people are forced to make decisions prematurely. And then that sound radiates.

Since then, new generations have discovered The Score and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and the two speak so powerfully that even though a 2007 Village Voice story updated Hill’s narrative—troubled, tardy, and unreliable—people continue to see her in hopes that some Miseducation is still in her. They put up with her continued, habitual tardiness because when Hill hits, she still can be magical. The songs from Miseducation continue to speak to women, and the warmth and wisdom in Hill’s voice even now gives them power. I saw her in 2011 when The Hot 8 Brass Band joined her at Jazz Fest, in 2014 when she was 45 minutes late at Voodoo, and in 2016 at Jazz Fest when she was right on time by her standards—the band was in place at the start time, though she joined them 15 minutes later. Each time, the show was powerful and different as she re-examined her songs from soul, reggae, and R&B perspectives, playing with them in the way Bob Dylan reconsiders his songs, letting time and her life reshape them and keep them relevant.  

Later in 2016, Hill’s “Diaspora Calling” tour played the Saenger and she reverted to form, being hours late to the stage. I ended up in an argument on Facebook with those who dismissed Hill’s lateness as an indulgent lack of consideration. It’s an easy conclusion to come to, and if you were in the room, all anger was understandable. When Hill was 45 minutes late for her set at Voodoo, the producers were so exasperated by her lack of urgency despite the empty main stage that they made no effort to cover for her.

I’ve always felt bad for Hill because her reputation for lateness has clearly cost her professionally. She doesn’t command the price that her popularity and history could earn her, and her reputation is shit except with those who put up with her foolishness to actually see her. She has spent time in prison for tax evasion, and it’s clear that whatever needed to happen to clear her head to make more music likely won’t happen. By now, I don’t know if I even want to hear a 20 years’ overdue follow-up because I don’t want her to be musically disappointing too.

Hill’s aware of her reputation, and addressed it in May 2016 when, a week after Jazz Fest, she was two hours’ late for her show in Atlanta. At the time, she claimed that her driver got lost—the excuse she told promoters when she was late arriving on site in 2014 for Voodoo. The day after her lateness made the news, she explained herself at length on Facebook, refuting those who contend that she takes her audience for granted. 

“I don't show up late to shows because I don't care,” she wrote. “And I have nothing but Love and respect for my fans. The challenge is aligning my energy with the time, taking something that isn't easily classified or contained, and trying to make it available for others. I don't have an on/off switch. I am at my best when I am open, rested, sensitive and liberated to express myself as truthfully as possible.”  

She went on to explain, “Because I care so deeply about the artistic process, I scrutinize, have perfectionist tendencies, and want space made for spontaneity, which is not an easy process, with the many moving parts on the road. Some days we are more successful than others re time.” That echoes producer Salaam Remi’s experience with her when he recorded “Fu-Gee-La” for The Score. “Lauryn probably recorded her 16 bars every day for seven days straight,” he said. “She came back in every day to redo it, because she’s that level of a perfectionist.”

That perfectionism, mixed with whatever is involved in aligning her energy, can make Hill hard to love today. It manifests in her chronic lateness, and even when onstage, she looks unhappy. When she played Jazz Fest in 2016, Hill impatiently gestured at the band, the monitors, and the side of the stage—presumably at the monitor tech. She seemed so unhappy, and I’d seen her gesture with similar manic intensity when her band hurriedly set up to finish its late Voodoo set on one of the side stages. The first time, I chalked it up to the circumstance as the band had to hustle onstage and play with a curfew looming a half-hour or so away. At Jazz Fest, the set was just starting, making the agitation and angst seem like a part of the noise in her head that makes Hill her career’s own worst enemy. 

She’s not going to change because in all likelihood she can’t. For fans, the question has become how much does Hill mean to them, and what are they willing to put up with to see her. She remains musically powerful, maybe even more than she was in the late 1990s because none of the issues she addressed on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill have gone away, and she’s lived long enough see they manifest over the course of two decades. She knows the full weight of what she wrote, and you can hear it in her performances. If have the patience to hang around and hear them.

Updated at 3:51 p.m.

The references to "Turning the Tables" were added after the story was published.