She's still killing us softly.
First, Lauryn Hill slayed us with her songs. Then she starved us by not recording or performing for nearly a decade. Now she's threatening us with something of a comeback: 17 intimate concerts (including Tuesday at First Avenue) and maybe, just maybe, a new recording.
In a rare interview last summer with National Public Radio, Hill, 35, explained that her absence from the stage -- which started in 2001, after a taping of a rambling "MTV Unplugged" -- was for many different reasons.
"Partly, the support system that I needed was not necessarily in place," she said. "There were things about myself, things that I need to go through and experience in order for me to feel like it was worth it."
With the New Jersey trio known as the Fugees, she released 1996's exceptional thug-free "The Score," featuring hit remakes of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song." But then the Fugees took a break so leader Wyclef Jean could make a solo album and Hill could give birth to her first child. The pregnancy inspired her writing, as she penned tunes for Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston and for her own '98 solo debut, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."
It was a remarkable mix of hip-hop, neo-soul and reggae with political and personal commentary. With help from Carlos Santana, Mary J. Blige, D'Angelo and a then-unknown John Legend, she ripped the record biz (and her Fugee mates), celebrated motherhood and chronicled her up-from-the-ghetto life. The single "Doo Wop (That Thing)" went to No. 1 on the pop charts while the CD sold 8 million copies and dominated the Grammys, capturing album of the year -- a first for hip-hop.
Despite the success, balancing business and her family (she and Rohan Marley had a second child in 1998) was not easy. She undertook a brief U.S. tour in 1999, and four of her "Miseducation" collaborators sued her for not receiving proper credits and royalties. (It was settled out of court in 2001.)
If her 2001 meltdown on MTV's "Unplugged" wasn't enough to raise concerns about Hill, it was topped by a 2003 Vatican Christmas concert where she delivered a tirade about abuse by Catholic priests. Since then, Hill has mostly been MIA except for a few concerts with the Fugees (in 2004-05) and a few solo gigs, many of which have received less-than-enthusiastic reviews.
Even on her current comeback tour, which started last month, the reports haven't always been flattering. Crowds have been frustrated by extremely tardy starts and a lack of new material (although a new tune, "Repercussions," was leaked last year). One thing that has impressed is her bold honesty onstage.
"I spent my entire 20s sacrificing my life to give you love," she said at a Brooklyn show Dec. 28. "So when I hear people complain, I don't know what to tell you. I personally know I'm worth the wait."
And maybe the wait is over. In Boston a few days before, she told the faithful: "I'll be seeing you often. New music soon."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719