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Lauryn Hill Returns From the Pop Culture Abyss

"It's funny how money changes situations" rapped former Fugees singer Lauryn Hill in the opening line of her multi-platinum solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It's a "no shit, Sherlock" moment, but its prominent placement seems indicative of the old showbiz saw that you can make anyone a success, but not everyone's made to be successful. Going from the stage mic to megaphone, as it were, requires something of an artist — something Hill was unwilling or unable to give, and so she left the stage. In that moment, she made her career.

Turning down fame and fortune at the height of your powers is sort of incomprehensible. It creates tremendous mystique. We are stunned and fascinated to see Björn Borg quit tennis at 26 or Greta Garbo leave film at 36 and retreat into a more unassuming life. We cannot, perhaps, appreciate being passed through the machine, this Eli Whitney/Rube Goldberg contraption that smooths and standardizes a creative product for mass consumption, excreting it with a trumpeted flourish of marketing.

The experience seemingly was so unpleasant for Hill that after three successively albums (two Fugees albums and her solo debut) she walked away. She came back for a couple of years in 2002 with an unpolished, unplugged performance of new material, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0. It's fascinating but unfinished, like a work in progress. And she was gone again.

She returned for a short-lived Fugees reunion, performing at Dave Chappelle's Block Party in 2004 (the concert was filmed and released as a movie by director Michel Gondry). Ironically enough, this was just a year before Chappelle himself walked away from a $55 million television deal. Indeed, fame and fortune seems to be particularly vexing for African-American icons, leading others like D'Angelo and, about the same time, Chris Tucker to step away from the spotlight. Chris Rock has suggested that the sense of responsibility to speak for more than oneself may make the mantle of fame that much more stifling. "I always say Tom Hanks is an amazing actor and Denzel Washington is a god to his people," Rock told GQ. If you're a black ballerina, you represent the race, and you have responsibilities that go beyond your art."

In the end, the legacy of the reunited Fugees would amount to a short set at the BET Music Awards and a single track, "Take It Easy," before imploding. Like much of Unplugged, the song features Hill raging at an "industry that tries to stop me like cops and paparazzi," and agitating for equality and freedom, but mostly respect. Not since Eve has an artist possessed such an enormous chip on her shoulder. Ironically, the other Fugees cited Hill for the breakup, noting, among other things, her insistence that everyone, even bandmates, refer to her as "Ms. Hill."

This time, we have the IRS to thank for her return. Hill owes $1.5 million in fines and penalties for failing to file tax returns from 2005 to 2007. During this time, she abandoned public life "to wean both myself, and my family, away from a lifestyle that required distortion and compromise as a means for maintaining it," according to an Internet post last summer. Hill made around $1.8 million during those years, causing one to ponder the line between principled activist and trust fund dilettante. It could be seen as naive to complain about the oppressive commercial forces that afford one such great freedom.

"Over-commercialization and its resulting restrictions and limitations can be very damaging and distorting to the inherent nature of the individual," she writes in the aforementioned rant. "To be denied the right to pursue it according to my ability, as well as be properly acknowledged and compensated for it, in an attempt to control, is manipulation directed at my most basic rights!"

Though principled, this stand belongs on the History Channel. Someone needs to introduce Hill to bittorrents and Kickstarter. She'll require a time machine if she's expecting to be "properly compensated."

The single new track she's revealed is "Black Rage," which turns the Sound of Music classic "My Favorite Things," into a litany of oppression: "Threatening your freedom to stop your complaining / Poisoning your water while they say it's raining / Then call you mad for complaining, complaining."

It's clever, but one wonders how long Hill can bleat the horn of victimhood and rage against the machine. It's easy to appreciate the 37-year old singer's tremendous vocal talents, but there's a reason why angry and young are synonymous. Righteous indignation sounds shriller from someone approaching middle age than a whip-smart 23-year-old.

"I abandoned greed, corruption, and compromise, never you," she tells her fans. "And never the artistic gifts and abilities that sustained me."

That's all fine and good, but is Miseducation little more than A Catcher in the Rye, a one-shot deal? Who knows? Her ex, Rohan Marley (the son of Bob), says Hill's kept writing all these years. Whether her fears were real or products of paranoia, her early exit's left the public hungry for more.

The question remains whether her moxie and fire have soured into crankdom. After shunning the world, can she still connect with the same incisiveness? Can she recycle or renovate the themes that drive her into something that resonates as her early work did, 14 years later?

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker