A decade ago (has it really been that long?), Lauryn Hill was on top of the world. Blessed with the rare double talent of being able to sing beautifully and rap skillfully-I dare you to name a better female MC EVER-she had superstar juice all over her. After initially gaining notoriety as an actress (“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” and “As the World Turns”), Lauryn broke through for real as the most talented third of the Fugees, a group that smashed together hip-hop, R&B and Caribbean flavors and scored the most left-field hit of 1996 with “The Score”. This album turned out to be the biggest hip-hop seller of the year, not a small feat during the year in which we lost Tupac.

Lauryn Hill performing live. Photo by Lisa Liang.

Lauryn Hill performing live. Photo by Lisa Liang.

There had been some internal drama within the group for some time. The rumor mill had Lauryn and bandmate Wyclef Jean dating (something that’s been confirmed by Wyclef’s wife, although both Wyclef himself and Lauryn have more or less stayed mum on the topic), while Lauryn was immediately singled out for her beauty and talent, which led to some discontent on the behalf of Wyclef and third member Pras, the Andrew Ridgeley of the group. ‘Clef struck first, reaching Platinum status with his album “The Carnival”, but Lauryn struck best, releasing her stunning record “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” on 8/25/98. Despite A-list support from the likes of D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige, “Miseducation” was all about Lauryn. The album sold 7 million copies, registered the highest first week totals for a female artist at the time, became the first hip-hop record to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and was arguably the best R&B record of the entire decade. Lauryn was the entire music world’s “it” girl. Gorgeous, brainy, talented, and seemingly grounded.

However, things were already unraveling. A team of writers and producers sued Lauryn, claiming that they were cheated out of credit on “Miseducation”, which was listed as having been “written, produced, arranged and performed by Lauryn Hill”. The suit was quietly settled out of court in 2001. An emotionally fragile Hill followed up “Miseducation” with a somber, somewhat amateurish appearance on “MTV Unplugged”. The resultant album only sold 550,000 units. Things continued to fall apart over the next couple of years: showing up late or not at all for shows, blasting the Catholic Church during a performance at the Vatican (which I think is actually more ballsy than unhinged, but whatever…), reuniting with her Fugees brethren in 2004 and then watching the reunion fizzle less than two years later (and with only a single to show for it), and the endless wait for a new album.

One also has to consider her somewhat bizarre relationship with Bob Marley’s son Rohan, which almost seems to have started as a measure of one-upmanship among bandmates (Wyclef anoints himself Bob Marley’s musical successor? Well, Lauryn’s kids have Bob Marley in their bloodline…so THERE!!!). The couple have five kids together, but according to various sources, are not and have never been married and allegedly even maintain separate residences (one magazine article stated that Rohan had married, had children by and never officially divorced his first wife, while a recent People magazine article says that Rohan is listed as “single” on his MySpace page).

Then there’s the whole “Miss Hill” nonsense. According to artists ranging from rapper Talib Kweli (who dedicated a song to her on his album “Right About Now”) and her two former Fugees bandmates, Lauryn now asks that she be referred to solely as “Miss Hill”. She also has reportedly fallen under the spell of a mysterious religious guru. None of this can really be substantiated, because Lauryn has repeatedly declined requests for interviews from just about every major publication in existence.

There’s never really been a precedent for an artist essentially disappearing after being at the top of the world for so long, although it’s become plainly obvious what being an entertainment icon at a young age can do to one’s psyche (see: Spears, Britney and Jackson, Michael). Recent articles in Spin (which involves Lauryn’s disappearance into an overall discussion about the disappearance of “Miseducation” guest D’Angelo) and People strike a somewhat hopeful tone, indicating that Lauryn is still making music-rumors that she’s been dropped from her label, Columbia, are false. In a musical world bereft of true talent, it’s safe to say the industry might need an artist like Lauryn more than ever. However, the question now becomes: does Lauryn need -or want-the music industry?