If you think a three-month stint in prison and mental health counseling have softened Lauryn Hill’s provocative views on social and economic injustice in the world and the music industry, think again. Fresh off her release from Danbury Penitentiary in Connecticut for tax evasion, the singer-MC-actress marks her return home with a new fiery single. “Consumerism” reiterates her disdain for the “climate of hostility, false entitlement, manipulation, racial prejudice, sexism and ageism” that led the five-time Grammy Award winner and her family to a life “underground.”
In the current rapid-fire cadence she’s adopted over the last couple of years, “Consumerism” finds Hill urgently rattling off a list of isms—egotism, racism, fascism, McCarthyism (the list goes on and on)—that plague our society. Similar to her pre-incarcerated single, “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix),” Hill’s eagerness to deliver her lyrics at chaotic warp speed makes it challenging to grasp her message in its entirety.
Nevertheless, her points are never lost on her most ardent listeners. Hill makes sure of that.
While she may be free from captivity today, Hill was always free-minded. Carving out her own path sans regard to public opinion was her constant modus operandi. While many were drawn to her music, behind that powerful voice was always a courageous and independent chocolate naturalista beauty who refused to play it safe on every level. And she spoke to many of us.
It was that fearlessness that gave birth to her seminal solo debut, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. (’98?! Damn.) A brave Hill eschewed R&B and hip-hop’s fixation with materialism, sex and violence, instead lacing spirituality, self-esteem, love and feminism into her songwriting. And at the height of her career, her decision to jump off the celebrity gravy train, stop recording music and step away from public life to focus on raising her children and re-evaluating her life may have been regarded as foolish and risky. Too few respected her for it.
Like the rest of the world, I’ve been waiting impatiently for new material. But I grew to accept that Hill owes us—her fans—nothing. Especially if it means she’d be sacrificing her health and happiness to give us what we wanted.
A fragile, raw, unpolished Hill appeared on 2002’s highly personal, live MTV Unplugged No. 2.0. As sloppy and uncomfortable as it was, there were some truly captivating acoustic numbers that set the stage for the vulnerable and flawed Lauryn Hill we know today. That album shattered the invisible glass standing between her and us; she was no longer the shiny untouchable star, but a human like us. Since exposing her blemishes to the world and questioning the status quo, the media and the public have dismissed Hill by labeling her borderline schizo. The same lazy tactic came into play against an outspoken Dave Chappelle during his period of soul searching.
Just prior to recent IRS troubles, it seemed as if she was slowly getting back into the groove of performing (albeit not without some chronic lateness issues) and setting the stage for a comeback. Ironically, it’s her prison sentence that’s motivated Hill to release some new music. In today’s sexpot dominated musical landscape, the complex Hill could once again break down the hip-hop gender barriers just like she did back in ’98.
“Consumerism” is a taste of what we can expect on her next album, Letters From Exile, Part 1, off her new label with Sony, Observe Creation Music. Let’s hope with years away from the spotlight and the music industry, Hill is now more equipped to deal with label politics and creative control. With this new venture under her belt, it’s obvious that prison time probably won’t diminish Hill’s promising future… and this time on her terms. In Miss Hill’s own words from Tumblr:
“ ‘Consumerism’ is part of some material I was trying to finish before I had to come in. We did our best to eek out a mix via verbal and emailed direction, thanks to the crew of surrogate ears on the other side. Letters From Exile is material written from a certain space, in a certain place. I felt the need to discuss the underlying socio-political, cultural paradigm as I saw it. I haven’t been able to watch the news too much recently, so I’m not hip on everything going on. But inspiration of this sort is a kind of news in and of itself, and often times contains an urgency that precedes what happens. I couldn’t imagine it not being relevant. Messages like these I imagine find their audience, or their audience finds them, like water seeking its level.”
Welcome home, Lauryn.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping