Lauryn Hill stands in the living room of the handsome, three-story home she recently bought for her parents, which is located in the same pretty, suburban town where she grew up. The singer is listening to some of her favorite music: the whooping and hollering of her year-old son, Zion.
Little Zion, whose father is Hill's longtime beau Rohan Marley--a son of the late reggae legend Bob Marley and a former star linebacker at the University of Miami--is actually playing to a packed house on this midsummer morning.
His mother, the frontwoman of the acclaimed hip-hop outfit the Fugees, is surrounded by various friends, relatives and staffers as she prepares for a short business trip to Manhattan.
There, Hill will review choreography for the video of "Doo Wop," the buoyant first single from her debut solo album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," which arrives in stores Tuesday (see review, Page 80).
Her record company, Columbia, expects a strong first-week showing. The Fugees' 1996 album, "The Score," sold 17 million copies worldwide and won two Grammys, establishing the strikingly photogenic Hill, 23, as an MTV fixture. Earlier this year, she further proved the range of her talents by writing and producing Aretha Franklin's chart-making single "A Rose Is Still a Rose" and directing the accompanying video.
On the new album, Hill's socially and spiritually conscious lyrics invite comparisons to such contemporaries as Erykah Badu and KRS-One, while also suggesting the influence of earlier masters including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. On some numbers, such as "Lost Ones" and "Superstar," Hill alludes to materialism and greed in the music business.
"There's too much pressure to have hits today," Hill explains. "Artists are watching Billboard instead of exploring their environment. . . . Look at someone like Aretha. She didn't hit with her first album, but she was able to grow up and find herself.
"I want to make honest music--I don't like things to be too perfect, too polished. People may criticize me for that, but I grew up listening to singers like Al Green and Sam Cooke. When they hit a high note, you really felt it."
Hill says her work was deeply affected by the experience of becoming a mother. As it turns out, she and Marley are expecting their second child in late October.
The couple's first-born, whose energy never ceases to amaze Hill--"He already dances to my music," she reports proudly--is saluted in "To Zion," one of many strikingly personal songs on her album.
"Having Zion helped me realize what was really important," Hill says. "I had made a lot of decisions for other people more than myself--which women tend to do. A lot of people were against my having a child so early, and at that point in my career. After the success of 'The Score,' I was suddenly forced to go off the road, because I was seven or eight months pregnant. It was one of the first things I did where I put my happiness first."
The Fugees, a group that Hill formed with the cousins Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel "Pras" Michel while still in her early teens, weren't an immediate success in the hip-hop world. The trio's debut album, 1994's "Blunted on Reality," showed promise but suffered from drab production and a lack of musical focus. It met with lukewarm sales and reviews.
The group fared much better with its second album. Aided by canny references to pop and soul classics such as the Roberta Flack hit "Killing Me Softly With His Song," and by the husky allure of Hill's resonant alto, "The Score" made the Fugees a star attraction.
Given the fiercely independent nature of Hill's new work, and the fact that she is clearly relishing a new sense of autonomy in her life, it's not surprising that there have been rumblings in the hip-hop community that she could be considering leaving the Fugees--whose other members also have been involved with their own projects. (Jean's 1997 album, "Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee All-Stars," has gone platinum; Pras' first solo album, "Ghetto Superstar," is due in October.)
Hill dismisses such talk but admits that her creative relationship with her partners has been charged with "some competitiveness." She also has chosen not to work with the Fugees' manager, David Sonenberg--president of DAS Communications, which also represents Joan Osborne and the Spin Doctors--for this solo outing.
"I love Lauryn, and I think her album is incredible," Sonenberg says. "I want her to be happy and successful in both her individual career and her career with the Fugees. I wish she felt that there wasn't a conflict, but I'm prepared to try to work things out so that she can move ahead with another manager in the solo arena."
Chris Schwartz, CEO of Ruffhouse Records--the division of Columbia Records that signed the group in 1992 and is releasing Hill's collection--is optimistic that the Fugees will release a new album in 1999. But he is also clearly supportive of Hill's desire to have her own project stand apart.
"I don't think a lot of people gave Lauryn credit for how much she contributed to 'The Score,' " says Schwartz. "A lot of people assumed that she was just a singer. I think when this new album comes out, she's really going to get her due as an artist."
Indeed, "Miseducation" features 13 new songs written and, with the exception of two tracks, produced by Hill alone. Folding reggae and old-school R&B; textures into lean, lo-fi arrangements that are at least as gritty as any Fugees song--and considerably less slick than the dance-oriented material on Jean's solo album--she sings and occasionally raps with sensuous authority.
"The thing that I see about Lauryn, almost more than any other artist I've worked with, is that she approaches her art nakedly from her heart. She relies on her strong sense of self," says Donnie Ienner, president of Columbia Records. "It would have been much easier for her to hire five producers, but she was hell-bent on doing it on her own, and we were 100% behind her. And it's really paid off."
During the 40-minute ride into New York City, Hill speaks in soft, slightly weary tones and yawns frequently. She seems as tired as one would expect a pregnant woman with her hectic schedule to be. But her face and manner perk up when the conversation turns to her boyfriend, whom she calls "Ro." Every so often, as she talks about him, the singer stares down contentedly at her stomach, which bulges visibly beneath a tight black shirt.
"He came to me when I wasn't looking for anybody," Hill says. "I've never met anyone like him. It's hard for women in my industry. There are a lot of opportunistic men who will use a woman's heart in a hurtful, nasty way. . . . But Ro's not frightened by my success. He doesn't feel the need to be competitive. I wasn't used to it at first--I was like, 'What's wrong with you?' I'd try to pick fights with him! But it's just pure love, you know?" Her bliss notwithstanding, one wonders how Hill will be able to juggle her burgeoning family with the demands of a multifaceted career.
Granted, Hill has already had some practice in combining artistic ambitions with family obligations.
As a teenager, she dabbled in acting, appearing on the soap opera "As the World Turns" and in the Whoopi Goldberg film "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit." Her father and mother--a computer consultant and a teacher, respectively--supported her aspirations, to a point.
"We made a deal," says Valerie Hill, a youthful, elegant woman with an easy smile. "I said that as long as her schoolwork came first, I would be happy to chauffeur her to auditions and showcases. And she kept up her end of the bargain."
In fact, shortly before the Fugees landed a record contract, Hill was accepted by Columbia University. She is currently on leave from her studies there, having not yet decided if or when she will return.
Hill has definite plans, though, to add to her already considerable workload with more acting roles. "I've just been waiting for that really dope script," she says, grinning. She also hopes to continue writing and producing music and directing videos for other artists--Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston are on her wish list--and has started a film development company.
Selwyn Hides, editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine the Source, has known Hill and her family for several years, and isn't worried that the young artist will overburden herself.
"I think Lauryn has two huge things on her side," says Hides. "First, there's the kind of person she is. Her drive and ambition are just boundless. Then there's her family--particularly her mom, Valerie, who is one of the strongest, most supportive women that I've ever met."
When Hill isn't on the road, she and Marley still basically live with her mother and father--even though the singer has converted her childhood home, a short distance from her parents' new house, into an office and studio with living quarters for her new family and her brother Malaney, who is 26.
Valerie Hill figures that staying in the old neighborhood helps to "keep it real for Lauryn, as the kids say." The once and future Fugee, not one to question a mother's wisdom, agrees.
"It's easy to get egocentric in this business," Hill says. "But I don't think an expensive car should be at the forefront of your goals, you know what I mean? I don't want to be the only one with the big jewel. I'm interested in making music that connects us rather than separates us. If I can provide some comfort or encouragement, or even wisdom . . . that's my goal."