Why Lauryn Hill disappeared after releasing her last album 20 years ago

After Lauryn Hill swept the Grammys with her hip-hop masterpiece — 1998’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” — it seemed as if the young singer-rapper was poised to kill us with her songs for decades for to come.

But the game-changing artist, who influenced everyone from Drake to Adele, would largely disappear from music — save for the odd single and some concerts — just four years later, following the release of her second solo album, “MTV Unplugged: No. 2.0,” on May 7, 2002. Twenty years after the former Fugee dropped that live recording of new folk-soul songs, it remains the last LP in a career that seemed destined to reach the prolific longevity of an Aretha Franklin or a Stevie Wonder.

Foreshadowing her retreat from the pop scene, the eight-time Grammy winner confessed her deep disillusionment with the music business in the conversational interludes that make up a good portion of the album.

Lauryn Hill won five Grammys for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999.

“I’m just retired from the fantasy part,” Hill told the “MTV Unplugged” audience, referencing the “public illusion” that “held me hostage” during the “Miseducation” phenomenon. “I’m glad that I don’t have to slave anymore.”

Far surpassing all expectations, “Miseducation” sold more than 10 million albums and won five Grammys. It was a crash course in superstardom — and all the pressures and problems that came with it — while Hill was also juggling being a young mother with an expanding family.

“I think we forget Lauryn Hill was only 23 years old, and she was … pregnant with [second child] Selah, when the album was released,” said Kathy Iandoli, author of “God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop.” “It’s not the easiest space to be in. And [after] she swept the Grammys, there’s just tremendous pressure now to deliver again.”

Lauryn Hill performing at Coachella in 2011.

Then there was a draining lawsuit filed in late 1998 by four musicians who sought co-writing and co-production credits on “Miseducation.” Hill eventually settled out of court with them for a reported $5 million in 2001.

Just months after settling the lawsuit,  Hill, shorn of her trademark dreadlocks, taped “MTV Unplugged.” While she described herself as “emotionally unstable” and “a mess” during the show, she also said that she was “at peace.”

In fact, then-“MTV Unplugged” producer Alex Coletti — whom Hill called directly about doing the show in July 2001 — was struck by Hill’s sense of humor and her engaging manner. “I didn’t know her to be that chatty in the times I’d worked with her [before],” he said, “so I was just surprised that she was in such a great mood.”

Lauryn Hill taught herself how to play guitar before taping “MTV Unplugged” in 2001.
Getty Images

While it was a radical reinvention for Hill — then pregnant with third child Joshua — to be strumming the acoustic guitar instead of bopping to hip-hop beats, there was no sign that this would be any sort of sendoff.

“I didn’t hear it as much as a swan song as I did her venting in the moment about how she felt about everything around her,” said Iandoli.

And while “she was definitely on a new path,” Coletti said, “this didn’t look like someone who was walking away from the music business.”

Lauryn Hill rocketed to superstardom after releasing “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1998.
Corbis via Getty Images

But Hill’s disillusionment with the music business grew after the “Unplugged” album turned off both fans and critics. Just three years after her big Grammy night, there were rumblings that Hill had lost “that thing” that had made her a superstar.

“She was written off [as having] lost her touch,” said Iandoli. “It turned into more of a smear campaign … People were saying stuff like, ‘Lauryn Hill looked homeless onstage.’ You can only criticize and poke at someone for so long. She’s a human being.”

It certainly didn’t help that Hill developed a reputation as an unreliable performer who notoriously showed up late to concerts over the years. Meanwhile, Hill’s family continued to grow: She went on to have two more children with longtime partner Rohan Marley (son of reggae legend Bob) before they broke up in 2011. That same year she had a sixth kid, Micah, by another man, whose identity is not publicly known.

Lauryn Hill reunited with the Fugees for a Global Citizen concert at Rooftop at Pier 17 in 2021.
Getty Images for Global Citizen

Two years later, Hill had to serve three months in prison for tax evasion.

And last year, Hill told “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums” podcast that her label, Columbia Records, hasn’t exactly been pushing to get her back in the studio. “The wild thing is no one from my label has ever called me and asked how can we help you make another album,” she said in a statement. 

Still, there have been glimmers that the Newark, New Jersey, native, now 46, might get her groove back. Last September, she reunited with the Fugees for a Global Citizen concert at Lower Manhattan’s Rooftop at Pier 17, and she joined Nas on “Nobody,” from his 2021 album “King’s Disease II.”

On the track, Hill rapped about her absence from the recording industry, celebrating her long-time liberation from the game as a personal victory: “All my time has been focused on my freedom now/Why would I join ’em when I know that I can beat ’em now?”