It was, you could argue, the greatest moment of Lauryn Hill’s career. But maybe, also, the moment when things started to go wrong.
Hill, who grew up in South Orange, rose to fame in the mid-’90s as a member of the hip-hop group The Fugees, but quickly established herself as a brilliant solo artist, too, with her 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. At the 1999 Grammys, she had 10 nominations — the most ever for a female artist at one Grammys show — and won five, the most a female artist had ever walked away with in one night. (Since then, Adele and Beyoncé have both won six).
Hill was scheduled to be the last performer on the telecast, and you would have expected her to opt for either her breakthrough solo single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” or her current single, “Ex-Factor.” Instead, though, she chose the soul-searching Miseducation track “To Zion,” with Carlos Santana reproducing his lyrical guitar part from the recording.
“To Zion” is a message in music to her young son Zion. In it, she sings about making the choice to have him, instead of getting an abortion:
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
“Look at your career,” they said,
“Lauryn, baby, use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart
“To Zion” didn’t provide the Grammys with its traditional explosive, upbeat closing number, though it was powerful, inspirational and life-affirming enough to work in the final slot. And by performing it, Hill gave the music industry notice that she was going to be doing things her own way from now on. Since Miseducation, she has only released one album — 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, which followed in the deeply personal, deeply serious tradition of “To Zion” — and taken long breaks between tours.
She served a three-month prison sentence for tax evasion last year, but has done some performing since then, and has some more shows scheduled for this fall. There is still no sign of her second solo studio album, though.
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.
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