THE CULT OF LAURYN HILL: An Alternative View

The Cult of Lauryn Hill: An Alternative View
By Tola Ositelu

laurynhill_znMy first introduction to Lauryn Hill was way back in the mid-‘90s. In hindsight it was a rather late one. Most people were already familiar with her 1993 appearance in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, which for some reason had escaped my attention up until then.

I remember first hearing Ms Hill’s name early 1996. I was half-way through my GCSE’s, a new girl had joined my class; a true R&B/Hip-Hop head fresh from Nigeria. I kept hearing her talk about this group called the Fujis (as I thought it was spelt then), which she explained was short for ‘Refugee.’ I asked my best friend at the time – Maggie, who was a bit of a Hip Hop connoisseur – if she had heard of them. Of course she was very familiar with the Fugees debut Blunted on Reality, the singles, at least.

It was also around that time I recall listening to Kiss FM 100 (when it actually cared about things like diversity and credibility) and hearing one DJ getting excited over the release of the follow album The Score, name-checking ‘The Girl from Sister Act who can really sing’. Assuming he was talking about the first film, I thought he referred to the timid little ginger nun; I was shocked to think she was making forays into urban music. Maggie soon corrected my mistake.

Shortly after that the Fugees released ‘Fugee-La’, their cover of ‘Killing Me Softly’ followed by ‘Ready or Not’ (with it’s crazy-good remix) and like the rest of the world I got caught up in the Fugees storm of 1996. I would stand up and defy anyone cheeky enough to accuse them of being a glorified covers band, as some detractors were fond of saying at the time. I think Lauryn’s mellifluous form of soul lured me into a false sense of security vis-a-vis the album. I remember borrowing a copy of The Score from a schoolmate and although I really liked the remixes of Fugee-La, I was also reminded that I didn’t enjoy listening to Hip-Hop records in their entirety.

lauryn_hillHowever just as important to me as the music at the time, was how Lauryn was recognised universally as being one hell of a pretty lady. At the time I was unhealthily pre-occupied with the fact that so many music videos featured only women of a lighter hue whilst females of my complexion were severely under-represented-with few notable exceptions; those being Maxwell videos (God bless him) and Lauryn Hill. It meant the world for me to see a dark-skinned woman celebrated in the mainstream for her beauty as well as her talent. I had to wait for the advent of Michelle Obama to see anything like it again.

Some solo and guest features by Lauryn were to follow the release of The Score such as the duet with Nas ‘If I ruled the World’ and ‘Sweetest thing’ from the Love Jones soundtrack. Up until this stage I was very much still riding the Hill gravy train. I would always maintain that Lauryn has one of the prettiest, most effortless voices of her generation. That now famous rendition of ‘Ode to Joy’ at the end of ‘Back in the Habit’ bears witness to that and in my mind, still remains Hill’s best vocal performance.

With the exception of India Arie and perhaps Lisa McClendon, very few female vocalists of Lauryn’s ilk have emerged in recent years to match her vocal beauty. Indeed I was still rooting for Lauryn on the first release ‘Doo-Wop’ from her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I bought the ‘Doo-Wop’ single. I thought she looked sensational in the innovative, now-classic video. It remains one of the ultimate feel-good party jams. I have a few good memories of that song including one not so long ago, skipping down the streets of Loughborough with my sister (whilst visiting her at University) and some mutual friends rapping and singing the whole song from start to finish at the top of our voices, perfectly sober.

When I first heard The Miseducation… album in full I intended to like it. Indeed, after so much hype I initially convinced myself I did like it. But it didn’t take long for me to realise – and vocalise – how much Hill’s pontificating and whingeing on that record really grated me. Musically, I felt Miseducation… was not saying anything new. Looking back the interludes were the best thing on that album for me. Most of the songs, at least lyrically, were derivative; sounding like a pastiche of any neo-soul song you ever heard. I appreciated the simple, gritty and effective approach to Hill’s harmony arrangements but it wasn’t enough for me to regard the album as this seminal contribution to music that others tried to convince me it was.

lrohanIt was clear to me from her solo outing that Wyclef Jean was truly the one behind the sound of the Fugees and the most accomplished as a producer. And that was the other thing that really got on my nerves. Hill’s bitching about her affair with Mr Jean. OK so he’s no saint… but it takes two to tango. It’s not like Lauryn wasn’t aware he was a married man so why make out like Wyclef was solely culpable? On top of that Lauryn had the cheek to lecture us with bible passages and prophecies of doom when she hardly lived an exemplary Christian life. At the time she was having lots of pre-marital nookie with a certain Mr Marley, hence the quick succession of offspring.

Nonetheless by this time Lauryn had been hallowed in so many people’s imagination that you rarely heard a bad word about her except the odd snide remark in Pride magazine or some New York based-shock jock DJs pointing out that Ms Hill’s didn’t live the squeaky clean lifestyle she preached. In short, I felt The Miseducation… was overrated and over-exposed and Lauryn had started taking herself too seriously. There was something slightly self-deprecating about the Fugees – they took the music seriously but they also knew how have a laugh. I detected no such good-natured humour when Lauryn went on her own and it was badly needed.

By the time Lauryn released her follow up MTV Unplugged album I really had no affinity to her music, which according to my sister is a shame. When I told her about this article she was surprised to learn I wasn’t a Lauryn Hill fan and implored me to check out the Live album, as it would surely change my mind. As of yet, I have not done so, partly because unlike the first album, I refuse to be persuaded by hype this time around. And perhaps because I fear it would be a bit hypocritical to change the whole tone of my article based on me listening to this one record, no matter how much I might like it in the end.

189681jpegHowever this brings me to another interesting point. Sister dearest isn’t the first person to tell me that Hill’s sophomore record deserved much better than the lukewarm reception it got. A close friend once explained to me that subsequent to her solo debut, Hill has seen the error of her self-important ways. Some have even said that Lauryn…Unplugged is every bit as worthy of attention as The Miseducation… if not more. It remains for me find that out for myself.

Whatever my reservations about Miss Hill’s solo work there’s no denying how influential she has been, vocally if nothing else. Until Beyonce Knowles came warbling onto the scene, Hill’s was the definitive R&B sound that so many young girls – and boys -tried to emulate. What is more, Hill’s voice stands the test of time and that is something even a Lauryn-sceptic like myself would not even try to deny.

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