Lauryn Hill defines herself. Twenty years ago, the one-time lead of the Fugees stepped out from the shadow of her male bandmates to release a solo debut. In the time since its August 1998 release, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her sole full-length album, has become the stuff of lore. It’s inspired records, documentaries, and books. The woman at its core remains at once celebrated and vilified, both an enigmatic siren and a fickle virtuoso.
Hill is an unlikely heroine. The New Jersey–born singer and rapper first attracted notice with her performance in the 1993 sequel of Whoopi Goldberg’s rapturous Sister Act. The original film followed the life of Deloris Van Cartier (Goldberg), a former lounge singer who turns to life in a convent for blasphemous reasons. In an effort to keep the rambunctious woman occupied, her fellow nuns assign Van Cartier to lead the convent’s choir, which she proceeds to turn into a musical sensation. In the phenomenally named sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Hill plays a preternaturally talented high-school student. Though she also had writing credits on one of the film’s raps (“Who Got the Flo”), it’s her rendition of a beloved gospel track that has resonated even 25 years later. Along with her co-star Tanya Blount, Hill reinvigorated the record.
Though the film was fictional, Sister Act 2 provides a convenient lens through which to view the rest of Hill’s career: She has struggled, often in public, with gendered expectations of piety and innocence. As the only female member of the unexpectedly successful rap group the Fugees, Hill faced constant scrutiny about her romantic life. In later years, her decision to pull away from the rigors of fame to focus on raising her six children prompted some to question her commitment to music.
Over the course of the two decades that have passed since the release of Miseducation, Hill has been placed on impossible pedestals and knocked off them. She has stunned audiences with both stellar lyricism and chronic lateness. She has forced longtime fans to wonder if she loves them back; she has earned skepticism from newer listeners. But through it all, Miseducation has been an anchor. It is not an overstatement to call its release one of the most influential events in hip-hop history; Miseducation broke the mold.
Still, with her erratic behavior and committed fanbase, Hill finds herself in a strange position. She is perhaps the only female artist whose accomplishments—in this case, the creation of Miseducation—have granted her access to a title most often assigned to men: genius. If Lauryn Hill is a genius, she is one who has inherited a world that does not tend to address the shortcomings of women as artistic idiosyncrasies. Kanye West, for all his MAGA-fied tomfoolery, still firmly occupies the nearly untouchable stratum of male genius. No matter how dangerous West’s flights of fancy, fans still defend him on the basis of his purportedly rare talent.