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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And today on our series, 50 Great Voices: Lauryn Hill.

(Soundbite of song, "Killing Me Softly")

Ms. LAURYN HILL & THE FUGEES (Music Group): (Singing) Strumming my pain with his fingers - one time, one time - singing my life with his words -two time, two time - killing me softly with his song, killing me...

NORRIS: In 1996, Lauryn Hill made a splash as a member of the hip-hop group The Fugees. But in recent years, she has performed very rarely. She's also avoided interviews and hasn't released any new music.

NPR's Zoe Chace reports on the voice and the silence of Lauryn Hill.

ZOE CHACE: Lauryn Hill is a great singer.

(Soundbite of song, "Ready or Not")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) Ready or not, here I come. You can't hide, going to find you.

CHACE: And she's an amazing MC, maybe the best rapper ever.

(Soundbite of song, "Ready or Not")

Ms. HILL: (Rapping) I play my enemies like a game of chess, where I rest, no stress...

CHACE: The story of her voice is also the story of the generation that came of age in the 1990s.

(Soundbite of song, "Doo Wop (That Thing)")

Ms. HILL: (Rapping) Yo, remember back on the boogie when cats used to harmonize like...

Mr. DARYL LUTZ: That was the sound that was coming from everybody's car. Everybody's car ride by, the windows was down and this was the album that was playing.

CHACE: Daryl Lutz is reminiscing on the deck of Marvin's Bar in downtown, D.C.

(Soundbite of song, "Doo Wop (That Thing)")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) And lick two shots in the atmosphere, yeah, yeah.

CHACE: It doesn't take much to get a crowd of 30-somethings nostalgic for Lauryn Hill.

Mr. LUTZ: We went to school in Hampton, Virginia and she came to do a show. It was one of the best times in my life. She signed my meal card. She signed it: Eat well, you know, I'm Lauryn Hill, L Boogie, eat well. So...

Unidentified Man: She said eat well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUTZ: Yeah. It's something that I'll never forget. I mean, I love her. I love her to death.

(Soundbite of song, "Doo Wop (That Thing)")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) Watch out. Some girls, some girls are only about that thing, that thing...

CHACE: Lauryn Hill was a total package. Her rhymes were dexterous, spiritual, hilarious. She was also a soul singer. She'd sing her own hooks and then rap over them.

(Soundbite of song, "Ooh, La, La, La")

Ms. HILL & THE FUGEES: (Singing) Ooh, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, lalalalala. Sweet thing. Yeah, she done me like she never before. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hey, in saloons we drink Boone's and battle goons till high noon. Burst rap tunes on flat spoons. Take no shorts like pun puns. See hootchies pop kootchies for Guccis and Lootchies. Find me in my Mitsubishi.

CHACE: She looks like a supermodel with an old school almost militant politic.

The album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," came out in 1998. Her solo record was like LeBron James' rookie year in the NBA. You knew he had potential to be great from seeing him in high school. But then right out of the gate, he's one of the best ball players in the league.

(Soundbite of song, "Ex-Factor")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) It could all be so simple, but you'd rather make it hard. Loving you is like a battle, like a battle...

Mr. JAY SMOOTH (Radio DJ): Speaking as a hip-hopper, I think it had a particular resonance for us.

CHACE: Jay Smooth is a longtime radio DJ.

Mr. SMOOTH: Someone who is my age, around the same age as Lauryn and the same age as people like Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, we grew up with hip-hop in the '80s and saw our generation create something that was so powerful and innovative, you know, expressing a love and a righteousness that we perhaps naively believed could change the world at that time.

CHACE: Like the hippies before them, hip-hop became more violent and self-involved in the '90s, culminating in the deaths of Tupac and then Biggie Smalls.

Mr. SMOOTH: And it was right after that, 1998, that Lauryn Hill's album came out. And it was as if she was that voice inside our soul coming out and asking all of us how could we have gone so wrong and can we have some grown folks talk about loving ourselves before it's too late?

Ms. HILL: One day, you're going to understand...

CHACE: For the people who worked on the album, it was just as transformative. Hill's manager, Jayson Jackson.

Mr. JAYSON JACKSON (Manager): The record was already inside of her. She would go into the studio and it would just pour out of her.

(Soundbite of song, "To Zion")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) Now the joy of my world is in Zion. Zion. Zion. Now the joy of my world is in Zion. Zion.

Ms. LENESHA RANDOLPH (Singer): I would stare at her, like look in her mouth like, really, it has such power and volume and rasp.

CHACE: Lenesha Randolph sang backing vocals on the album.

Ms. RANDOLPH: I remember her saying: I don't know what they're going to think about the album because, you know, I'm a rapper and nobody wants to hear rappers sing. And I'm like, what are you talking about? Like, when you hear her sing and then hear her speak, you just say to yourself: Wow, that's something to, you know, strive for, that kind of purity.

CHACE: The album was widely praised and beloved, but there was controversy. Most of the tracks were billed as written and produced by Lauryn Hill. Some of her collaborators sued for credit. She settled out of court. And the stir over the suit was the beginning of what felt like a fall from grace for Lauryn Hill. She disappeared from public life. For years, her fans traded rumors, basically that she had some kind of breakdown. She did few interviews. She dropped the Lauryn and insisted on being called Ms. Hill instead.

That powerful voice that represented great potential being fulfilled became a memory. Her fans got older, but...

Mr. SMOOTH: I don't think anyone ever forgets her or stops talking about her. If you say Lauryn Hill walked into Home Depot, you'll be hoping she starts tapping on the top of a table and making a beat and singing.

CHACE: This could be the year.

Ms. HILL: I think you know this one.

CHACE: A few weeks ago at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa, California, Ms. Lauryn Hill took the stage. Her band was restless and loud behind her, almost drowning her out. When she rapped, she spoke so fast it seemed she was barely breathing. She kept shouting directions to the band, but her voice was still strong and she was in complete control of her instrument.

(Soundbite of song, "Ex-Factor")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) It could all be so simple. Come on. But you'd rather make it hard. Come on. Bring it on. Loving you is like a battle...

CHACE: I went to Harmony with little hope of landing an interview. I've been told not to touch her, not to look her in the eye, that instead of talking directly to people, she writes directions on a Post-it note and sticks it to your chest.

But when we asked if we can ride with Ms. Hill after the show, she tells us to get in the car. I ask her the question her fans have been asking each other for years.

Why did you stop putting out music?

Ms. HILL: There were a number of different reasons. But partly, you know, the support system that I needed was not necessarily in place. There were things about myself, things that I needed to go through and experience in order for me to feel like it was worth it.

CHACE: I'm right next to her in the middle seat. Our elbows are almost touching. She seems very sane, very serious, still so beautiful. As to where this voice came from...

Ms. HILL: I realized that I had a great appreciation of music at a very young age.

(Soundbite of song, "Every Ghetto, Every City")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) I was just a little girl, little girl, skinny legs a press and curl, press and curl. My mother always thought I'd be a star. My mother always thought I'd be a star.

I think - along with a lot of male vocalists, you know, I think that's one of the reasons why to this day, my voice tends to sit well and more comfortably in the lower range. You know, I sang along with the Donny Hathaways and Stevie Wonders and Jackie Wilsons.

CHACE: Lauryn Hill's voice is extraordinary, so it's funny to hear that she's still working on it, holding it out in front of her, shaking it like a sheet, examining it to see what more she can do with it.

Ms. HILL: I think one of the things that I'm trying to do is just open up my range, you know, really sing more. I think that with The Fugees initially, and then even with "Miseducation," it was still very sort of hip-hop, you know, oriented.

(Soundbite of song, "Ooh La La La")

Ms. HILL: (Rapping) Hey, hey, hey, try to take my crew and we don't play, play. Say, say, say like Paul McCartney...

Sing, sing, sing, you know, in the context of sort of hip-hop, singing over beats but singing. I think most people have never really heard me sing, sing, sing. You know, if I do record next time, perhaps it will be an expanded context where people can hear a bit more.

CHACE: Hill says her five children are growing up, and as a result, she's able to perform more. She's got more festival dates at the end of this summer and she's talking about recording again.

Ms. HILL: I think it's just time and I'm starting to get excited again.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

NORRIS: Lauryn Hill. There's more of the interview with the artist at our website, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Everything is Everything")

Ms. HILL: (Singing) Everything. Everything is everything. Everything. What is meant to be will be.

NORRIS: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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