Lauryn Hill Is Making New Music, But Will It Be Any Good?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 26 2013 7:00 PM

Lauryn Hill Is Making New Music, But Will It Be Any Good?

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Lauryn Hill performing in 2011

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images for Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Earlier this week, Billboard reported that Lauryn Hill had inked a $1 million record deal with Sony—enough to help her avoid jail time for tax evasion. The singer’s contract promises five new songs from Hill, the industry magazine said, plus “additional money for an entire album’s worth of music.” The announcement has been met with some cynicism, with Marah Eakin at the A.V. Club cautiously touting the return of new songs “made just to get out of prison!

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Aisha Harris is a Slate culture blogger for Brow Beat. Follow her on Twitter.

Fans have reason to be skeptical about the outcome of such a deal. In the 15 years since her Grammy-conquering debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), the singer has released only one other collection, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 (2002), a live album featuring covers and unrecorded material. She’s retreated from the limelight almost entirely except to perform shows here and there, chronically showing up hours late before patient fans. And her public persona has taken a beating over the years, with many deeming her “crazy” or, more forgivingly, “odd.”

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But yesterday, when Hill herself confirmed on her Tumblr that she’s signed a deal with Sony (and will create her own label for her own new music), she suggested that her return was about more than just cash, or a Get Out of Jail Free card. Referring to the “old conflict between art and commerce,” she wrote:

This is about inequity, and the resulting disenfranchisement caused by it. I’ve been fighting for existential and economic freedom, which means the freedom to create and live without someone threatening, controlling, and/or manipulating the art and the artist, by tying the purse strings.

The details of her battles with record labels are muddy, but Hill may have a point. While many artists’ claims to artistic integrity can come off as sanctimonious or ring false, Hill has always seemed like the type of performer who truly does take her own work seriously and who always has cherished freedom from corporate interference. (See “Superstar,” from Miseducation: “Now tell me your philosophy/ On exactly what an artist should be/ Should they be someone with prosperity/ And no concept of reality?”) In her Tumblr post, Hill provides only a vague description of what exactly she’s been working against all these years: “a completely complicated set of traps, manipulations, and inequitable business arrangements” that have led her to her unfortunate financial situation. But if her frustrations with her label are anything like, for example, those of Lupe Fiasco while making Lasers, then it may not be right to label her as crazy just because she hasn’t been giving her fans the new music that they want.

Of course, rappers like Fiasco have also dealt with the problem by putting out mixtapes (in the case of Fiasco, fans even appreciated the mixtapes more than the album), so why didn’t Hill consider that avenue? In her Tumblr post, Hill states that she has been working towards a deal that would be true to her artistic contributions. “I have been working towards this for a long time,” she wrote, “not just because of my current legal situation, but because I am an artist, I love to create, and I need the proper platform to do so.” It’s hard to argue against her receiving due compensation for her work, but it is curious that she hasn’t found the time to go the mixtape route, or otherwise leak new music over the last few years on her own—she could have easily done this if she had really wanted to, and may have even found a label to pick it up after the fact, as happened with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album in 2001. But with very few exceptions, she’s remained silent. Fans have every right to ask, is her heart still in it?

Being off the radar for so many years will also put an incredible amount of pressure upon Hill. Whatever ultimately comes of the Sony deal, fans will be eager to hear how it turns out.