Anyone who has followed Lauryn Hill’s career will point to her MTV Unplugged album as the moment when it all changed. Long before Kanye West coined the phrase, we would say, “We miss the old Lauryn.” Her de-facto follow-up to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill proved lackluster in the demanding eyes of those looking to still fixate on a pop star. Now, 15 years removed from that narrative, was Lauryn Hill’s offering greater than the credit we gave it?
In May of 2001, Lauryn Hill fans fell into a pit of despair.
The 2001 Essence Awards proved to be a sobering event when Maxwell introduced Lauryn Hill to the audience and the person who emerged was not the same person we knew just two years prior.
Following the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in August of 1998 and the birth of her second child Selah in November of that same year, Lauryn embarked on a world tour that would stretch well throughout 1999. However, once the turn of the century hit, Lauryn Hill would vanish. If you watch old clips of her Japanese Tour log (like I still do religiously), you’ll hear her discussing some of the woes of that touring life. When she was pregnant with Zion during the recording of Miseducation, her voice (like most pregnant women) reached octaves her contralto chops never hit before.
So touring that album and attempting to hit those same notes left her on intense vocal rest in between dates—a reality she would gingerly explain in whispers between sips of tea and wraps of a scarf around her neck. She smiled during interviews, but didn’t seem happy at all. We learn now that upon returning home from that tour, she was rumored to have found her ex-husband Rohan cheating with a member of her team (some say a family member).
Her hiatus was described as a “self-imposed exile,” though others say, “chill, she was just being a mom to her kids.” We don’t know the real means of that lore; we just saw the end result on that Essence Awards show stage. Her beautiful locks were chopped off (which oftentimes signifies a major life change), her voice was strained, her face looked like a window to a broken heart. The song she performed was “Adam Lives In Theory” (see above), a cut oozing in infectious betrayal and accented with religious undertones. Allusions to God are something Lauryn has leaned on her entire career, from The Fugees and into her solo efforts. Now though, this divine calling was a crutch for comfort. "You just wanna use me, you say love then abuse me," she would sing, only furthering the claim that infidelity broke her spirit.
In a word, it was sad. And for a burgeoning young music journalist-slash-Lauryn Hill zealot like myself, it was a call to action.
At the top of July that year, just two months following her Essence performance, Lauryn was scheduled to perform at the African Arts Festival in Brooklyn. She was late. Very late. So claims that her tardiness came on suddenly are not entirely true. But when she arrived, it was beautifully confusing. She debuted six new songs that day, amidst tears and those same guitar chords that now have unfortunately become her trademark. I wrangled my way backstage and when I got there, her personality was thankfully stuck in ’98. I’d only barely met Lauryn Hill a few times prior that, but it was enough to know a sanely sweet person when I saw one, and the brief exchange we had in 2001 fortified my earlier opinion. She was fine.
By the end of July of that year, she would record the MTV Unplugged episode. It wouldn't air for a year later, and we now know why. Barely two months after filming, 9/11 would happen. Given the strong political undertones and conspiracy theories presented within the work Lauryn performed, MTV felt it was insensitive to air it near the time of that tragic event. So it sat for a while, and aired in 2002, almost a year to the date of its initial recording. It arrived in tandem with a CD release of the recordings. However, most won’t even mention the CD without referencing the live performance. Lauryn donned a Canadian tux with silk scarf on her head layered by a baseball cap. Her vocal chords did not emit the same beautiful sounds we had once heard, her tears washed away the lyrical poignancy of the songs she was trying to sing…and those damn guitar chords.
Fun Fact: During a promo video for The Fugees' 'The Score,’ Lauryn tells the camera that Wyclef was teaching her how to play guitar and would literally bite off her fingernails when they grew too long and prevented her from playing. So this is basically all his fault.
This unplugged moment marked the hard pivot of Lauryn Hill into Ms. Lauryn Hill. Gone were the days of cheery stage performances of material deemed classic. The new norm would be a roller coaster ride filled with elaborate makeup and costumes, flips in arrangements of songs that should never be touched, tears followed by standoffishness, a cameo from the elusive Brother Anthony, a prison stint, and perhaps an even greater disappointment: no real follow-up to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Some say she was struggling with emotional turmoil. Others say it was an act. I say the truth lives somewhere in the middle. I interviewed Salaam Remi several times throughout my career, and I always have him re-tell me the story of how the night before Unplugged was filmed, Lauryn was jamming at his studio with him and Nas. They had so much fun she sung out her voice. When she showed up to filming now understandably hoarse, the tears were the only eyebrow raising aspect of that evening.
Maybe Ms. Lauryn Hill was suffering from mental illness, or maybe she'd just had enough. With everything: the music industry, her personal life, the world at large. Her voice could no longer support the weight of what she was singing, but that doesn’t mean she was singing gibberish.
Fifteen years following the release of that album—once you peel away the aesthetic layers that have hidden the true value of the music—Lauryn Hill was telling it like it is. Songs like “I Get Out” and “Mr. Intentional” are now the constructs of present-day thinkpieces regarding self-betterment and the clichéd meme of “letting go.” Meanwhile, “Freedom Time,” “The Mystery of Iniquity,” and “I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel)” are literally the identical sentiments to what everyone is feeling right now. The latter of those three was the most controversial song that caused a moratorium on the release at the time, since the lyrics urged an uprising. Now we march and protest, like the song loosely suggests. And Kanye West interpolated "The Mystery of Iniquity" for his song "All Falls Down."
Perhaps Lauryn Hill’s follow-up to the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill wasn’t the sophomore effort we wanted, but subconsciously needed. The greatest argument that pop culture voyeurs would offer would be that Lauryn Hill simply wasn't "letting us in," though Unplugged explains everything we needed to know. And while we were quietly comfortable with male artists going from commercial success to more socially-driven material—even following a pregnant pause (D'Angelo ring a bell?)—we couldn't offer that same courtesy to Lauryn Hill. While we shook our heads and mourned her follow-up release in 2002, 15 years later it’s plain to see that we simply just weren’t ready for it.