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The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill catapulted Hill to superstardom. Twenty years on, some see her limited discography as a sign of a failed artist, but a broader consideration of Ms Hill’s career shows an artist who has fought to maintain control.
Listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would be mere nostalgia were it not such a relevant masterpiece. However, since the 1998 release, some of Hill’s early fans feel that she failed to reach her full potential.
After her work with the Fugees, Hill’s first solo album revealed hip-hop’s potential as a socially conscious artform for a generation that was looking for a feminist critique of their world. But as time went on, fans saw the artist’s failure to produce a sophomore album on par with Miseducation as a betrayal.
By the time of her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 performance in 2001, fans were ready to hear Lauryn Hill again. When the recording was released the next year, it was a critical and commercial failure – critics trashed her inept guitar skills, raspy voice and ramblings between songs. Her star had burned out.
People didn’t want to know the Hill of MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 – a mother of three, torn between the expectations of her fans and her desire to lead a life that still felt real to her. They wanted the facade of effortless perfection. But as Hill tells the audience between songs, she was tired of “slaving to act like, you know, ‘I woke up like this.’”
Not long after, the artist began to refer to herself as Ms Lauryn Hill, a move that was met with mockery. Fans had fallen in love with Lauryn Hill but they wanted little to do with Ms Hill. They wanted another anthem-studded album, without considering that Hill might not want to endure the emotional labor necessary to produce it.
Reception of Unplugged 2.0 reveals a key point of tension between artists and their fanbase. “Fans only talk about Hill’s failure to produce another album,” says Kathleen Feeley, a pop-culture historian at the University of Redlands in California. “They miss her as a performer, and not as an agent in her own life.”
The constant criticism Hill received demonstrates how much fandom is based on the perceived ownership of an artist’s persona. The artist becomes a commodity, their private life becomes conflated with a public persona and artists with the kind of success that Hill had after Miseducation find themselves becoming a commercial enterprise.
Throughout Unplugged 2.0, Hill labors to explain the effect of this to the audience: “I used to be a performer, and I really don’t consider myself a performer anymore. I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage.”
Despite accusations of failure, Hill has been anything but absent from the music world during the last two decades. She continues to work as a songwriter, composer and producer, collaborating with contemporary artists like Drake and ASAP Rocky. Feeley sees this move behind the scenes as perfectly reasonable for the Hill, now a mother to six children: “Touring, being a performer is the worst kind of lifestyle for someone with a family.”
Hill’s role as a mother is often overlooked, even though it was the inspiration behind one of her greatest hits, ‘To Zion.’ Hill, who welcomed her first child a year before Miseducation’s release, made a decision to pivot her career to be more amenable to her life as a parent.
“Hill’s career is a cautionary tale about the nonsense of having it all because you can’t. Mothers have to make choices, men have children and carry on, but the burden of judgement still falls on mothers,” says Feeley. Fans rejected the difficulty Hill experienced to juggle motherhood and her celebrity, instead chalking it up to her ineptitudes as an artist.
Hill’s frank discussion about this struggle suggested to many that she was experiencing a mental breakdown. The accusation was bolstered by Hill’s own references to “the people in [her] head,” on Unplugged 2.0. However, when heard in context, it seems obvious that she is referencing her conscience, not auditory hallucinations.
Feeley likens Hill’s experience of the music industry to the control Hollywood film studios had over the public messaging and personas of their talent. “While film stars pushed against the studio system [in the 1950s], it still persisted in the music industry,” says Feeley. “but all that has changed in the age of social media.”
Under studio control, an artist’s public messaging involves endless strategizing between marketing teams, publicists and studio heads to determine what the fanbase will respond to most. With social media, artists can bypass the studio bureaucracy and receive instant feedback via likes, faves and retweets.
Today, followers have become as important as music sales. In the age of social media, fans flock to celebrities who present a persona that moves away from studio-manufactured perfection. While there is a level of production behind the personas artists put on display in their Instagram feeds, fans have grown to expect the level of authenticity that Hill was giving to her fans all along. Ironically, public opinion tainted her message before she could benefit from the use of Twitter and Instagram. Her official social media pages mainly serve as a way to publicize shows or festivals she is involved with.
It is hard not to think about what Hill’s career could have been if she didn’t eschew the studio system. “Think of Beyoncé,” says Feeley. “She went through the system, did everything she was supposed to do, and now she’s so big that she can basically do whatever she wants. Her evolution is a different one but it’s really interesting because she now has control of her career and her messaging. It’s a different trajectory but they [Hill and Beyoncé] ended up in a similar place as social protest artists.”
Regardless of what could have been, Hill influenced an entire generation of hip-hop artists, who use their medium to critique the systemic failures and social issues. Ms Lauryn Hill was before her time and as she embarks on a world tour to commemorate Miseducation’s 20th anniversary, maybe critical fans are finally ready to respect her needs as an artist, rather than lament what they think they’re owed.