By the time she dropped the “Ready or Not” verse that infamously invokes Elliot Ness, sess, witches brew, voodoo, and hexes then likens herself to Nina Simone right before firing the scatological shot heard around the world, it was Wu-Tang clear: Lauryn Hill was nothing to fuck with.
The demand for Lauryn to go solo would start almost immediately…Miseducation followed it with ten nominations and a record-setting five wins, breaking the one set for female artists by Carole King and her album Tapestry in 1971.
This was in part due to the utter uniqueness of Hill’s components. Black. Female. Ivy Leaguer. A Columbia University English major blessed with a broad literary arsenal that simultaneously reflected her dexterity as a wordsmith and her acute understanding of the latent but deadly power in the economy of words. Lauryn was nice with hers. She had rhyme schemes that could stalk a lyrical adversary with panther-like precision. With a singsong playfulness, she could engage her silky alto and disarm anyone who made the mistake of taking her too lightly, then spit a death blow with the percussiveness of machine-gun rounds or metronomic machete swings, depending on her mood.
She was also arresting. And not just because she arrived as a working actress (she had a reoccurring role on the soap As the World Turns and a lead in Sister Act 2 under her belt), one who understood presence and how to werrrk a camera and command a stage. To quote writer and filmmaker dream hampton, “Lauryn Hill was our most beautiful pop star from that era. Line up Whitney, Janet, and Mariah. Lauryn was the most beautiful. Those wedges. Those legs. Those thigh-high shorts. She was just this perfect little thing.”
But while beautiful pop stars are the stuff of cliché, it was the type of beauty Lauryn Hill possessed that made her as much of a visual intervention as she was a musical one. Deep chocolate brown skin with a mane of dreadlocks, she was the type of post–fly girl pretty common to pre-gentrified Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy, but was completely ignored by the mainstream media. And if we are to be nakedly honest—and really, after twenty years in, why not?—by plenty of hip- hop era black men in ways that were demonstrated by both their dating and video casting choices. In a sea of sew-ins and relaxers, Lauryn was a naturalista long before YouTube tutorials talked black women through the radical choice of actually liking and growing your hair the way nature and your gene pool intended. And way before the twenty-first century’s natural hair revolution created a half-billion-dollar industry of conveniences to support that choice.
Lithe and leggy, Lauryn was a fashionista deeply invested in a personal style who liked nice things but seemed to flow above the fray of ghetto fabulousness and its accompanying tendency to serve as high-end designers’ billboard. She liked her hip-hop tinged with a rootsy glam and hints of an ethereal ‘70s sexy grounded with sobering touches of militancy—a combo that was deceptively accessible, simultaneously aspirational, and ultimately inimitable. Making cover-girl moves where no dreadlocked black girl had gone before— Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan. Shit. Essence—we have Lauryn Hill to thank for the present-day Gucci models who sport TTAs (teeny-tiny afros) and Saint Laurent girls showcasing blackety-black-black corn- rows, the kind without extensions. In short, Lauryn was the visual precursor for #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock. We turned to her for soul affirmations that we were more than enough before the digital revolution granted us hashtags that enabled us to harness archives of similar fierceness easily on Instagram and Tumblr.