• U.S.

Music: Songs In The Key Of Lauryn Hill

8 minute read
Christopher John Farley

You’re alone in a dark room with the Queen of Hip-Hop. Back up. Rewind. There was light when you arrived; when you got here it was still before nightfall, and the New Jersey sky was the flat bluish-gray of an old fluorescent light. Riding in your car in the half-light, you came to a comfortable brick house on a comfortable, suburban, Truman Show-ish street; walking up, the door wasn’t locked, it wasn’t even closed, and it creaked open wider when you knocked. This ain’t Compton, this ain’t the Queensbridge projects, but this is where hip-hop lives in the 9-8: this is the home of Lauryn Hill, rapper/singer/actress, member of the rap trio the Fugees; the woman whose neosoul vocals took a hip-hop remake of Killing Me Softly to the top of the charts; the woman whose first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released last week to wild acclaim. The streety hip-hop magazine the Source called Hill “the flyest MC ever.” The not-at-all-streety New York Times called her “visionary.”

So now you’re sitting in the dark with the new Queen of Hip-Hop. You’re in a windowed alcove just off the living room. Hill doesn’t want to turn on the lights; she says she “doesn’t want to spoil the mood.” You can hear her one-year-old son Zion gurgling and making baby yelps in a nearby room. When you came in, you could see Hill’s tummy bulge under her blue overalls–the 23-year-old mom has another baby due in October. Now you can’t see anything. You can just hear her voice. Motherhood is on her mind. What kind of parent will she be? Hip-hop is on her mind. Does her work have social worth? It’s all swirling in her thoughts in the dark.

“When I was a teenager, I used to be really critical when I’d think about how the civil rights movement went so far and basically stopped, and I’d think, ‘Where did your fire go?'” she says. “Now I know what happened. Everyone had kids. And that’s the challenge: maintaining that fire, knowing that the sacrifice is different now; it’s not just you. But I’m a fighter, and I want my son to be a fighter. I want him to be comfortable, but I don’t want to lose my fire and passion.”

That’s one reason people listen to hip-hop: they want that fire, that passion. And right now, to paraphrase hip-hop folkie Beck, rap is where it’s at. In 1995 rap albums accounted for just 6.7% of all music sales; through the first half of this year that figure has risen to 10.3%. By contrast, over the same period, rock’s market share fell, from 33.5% to 28%. In their new book It’s Not Only Rock & Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents (Hampton Press), Peter G. Christenson and Donald F. Roberts declare that today’s rap defies its demographic stereotypes: research shows that 1) rap is about as popular in the suburbs as in the inner city; 2) it’s as popular with girls as with boys; and 3) almost 75% of rap album sales are to whites.

Brian Turner, president of Priority Records, a hip-hop label whose roster includes Ice Cube, says hip-hop, once called a fad, is now an essential part of American culture. “The hip-hop industry, in general, is stronger than it’s ever been, in terms of units sold, in terms of the number of releases,” says Turner. “Rap has proved itself to be the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’90s.” And today’s hot rockers–Beck, Korn, even, to a certain extent, Alanis Morissette–often draw on hip-hop rhythms and attitude.

Hill is one of the performers set to take hip-hop into the new millennium. Born and raised in South Orange, N.J., she met her fellow Fugees, Pras and Wyclef Jean, in high school, then spent two years at Columbia University before dropping out to pursue music. On the old-school-funky Every Ghetto, Every City, one of Miseducation’s best tracks, she pledges to remember her roots: “Way before the record deal/ The streets that nurtured Lauryn Hill/ Made sure that I’d never go too far.” Hill isn’t out to create bourgeois hip-hop lite; she constantly strives to connect her message to the street. The album veers from rapping to singing, from hip-hop to neosoul, from African-American argot to Jamaican patois. Part of the CD was recorded in Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, where reggae rebel Bob Marley recorded.

The album’s central topic is love. Not the sappy sop of pop ditties, but a tough, confessional examination of relationships such as cultural critic Bell Hooks describes in her book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist/Thinking Black: “Love can be and is an important source of empowerment…to face the ways in which we dominate and are dominated… To change our actions, we need a mediating force to sustain us.” Hill’s songs try to be that mediating force. On Ex-Factor, she examines her own attraction to psychologically hurtful men. “Who I have to be/ To get some reciprocity?” she pleads. Later, the meditative title song gives an answer: “I made up my mind to find my own destiny.”

Listeners like her message. Roberto E. Gooden, urban-music supervisor for the HMV store in New York City’s Herald Square, says Hill’s CD is racking up heavy sales: “The people who are buying it are all ages, all backgrounds…but I’ve noticed a lot of adult, together women buying this CD. Lauryn Hill is their peer, and so they want to buy her album.”

Hill is part of a new wave. The late ’90s has seen the rise of a different kind of hip-hop star, a performer with global appeal who is finding success beyond hip-hop. As S. Craig Watkins, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who has written about hip-hop and black films, notes, “The interest generated by hip-hop culture has cleared the way for more black people to express themselves in other areas of pop culture.” All three Fugees have recorded solo albums. Wyclef’s went platinum, and Pras’ forthcoming CD, Ghetto Supastar, has generated a No. 1 single in Switzerland, Belgium and several other countries. Hip-hop mogul Sean (“Puffy”) Combs is preparing to co-star in a movie with Al Pacino and planning to launch a line of urbanwear in 1999. Beastie Boys has a record label, a magazine and a clothing line. Rapper Master P is set to co-star as a computer specialist in Takedown, a movie from Miramax’s Dimension Films about computer hackers. Master P may play a gangsta on his CDs, but in Takedown his character will work alongside the FBI. Says Andrew Rona, vice president of production at Dimension: “I’m not sure what it is, but [rappers] speak to their generation. People see them in a role, and they relate.”

Night in New Jersey. A soft, warm rain is falling. You are standing on Hill’s front porch. Hill bought the house for her parents and has her own place nearby, but she’s been living here as she readies herself for the birth of her child. Hill’s mom helps with the baby, as does Hill’s boyfriend Rohan Marley, the son of Bob Marley and the father of both Zion and Hill’s unborn child. Hill says the two have “plans to marry” but no set date. In the meantime, she says, “I don’t consider myself a single parent because my son’s father is very much involved.”

She appreciates the help. Like other multimedia hip-hop stars, Hill, who appeared in Sister Act 2, has a lot of offers. She’s considering a part in a possible movie adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules, she’s in discussions with director Joel Schumacher about appearing in a big-screen version of the musical Dreamgirls, and she recently started her own film production company. Next year, she hopes to go on tour with neosoul star D’Angelo.

Right now she’s making her chief impact with her music. Hill wrote and produced every song on her CD (except for two standards she covers). Her album also uses live instruments, giving it a fresh, personal feel. “People like Lauryn and Wyclef and Missy [Elliot] are making creative albums,” says Funk Master Flex, a D.J. for New York City’s Hot 97 radio station, whose own CD, The Mix Tape Volume III, is a Top 10 hit. “They’re sending a signal to other artists: check yourselves, and step up your game.”

Back on that Jersey porch, something else is on Hill’s mind. She smacks her lips. “You get these hungers when you’re pregnant,” she says. “At least I do. For strange things.” Hill then announces she has a craving for a kind of soap.

Driving out of South Orange, it’s hard not to think of Hill’s odd craving metaphorically. It’s a creative time in hip-hop history, a pregnant time; there’s a hunger for music that is out of the ordinary, that breaks boundaries. You think of a line from one of Hill’s songs: “I treat this like my thesis/ Well-written topic/ Broken down into pieces.” You slip Miseducation into your CD player. “Now some might mistake this for just a simple song…”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com