Music

Please Call It a Comeback

That scene in Superman III, with the boy yelling words of encouragement to the struggling protagonist? That's how I feel when I think of Lauryn Hill.

For me, actor Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. No disrespect to the TV versions played by George Reeves and Dean Cain or the latest big screen adaptation starring Brandon Routh -- I just think Christopher Reeve was the best. I loved his Clark Kent.

When it comes to Reeve and the "S" on his chest, I have fond memories of the film Superman III (I may be the only one who does!). That's the '80s film that features Robert Vaughn (the actor who's done all those legal commercials with the line, "Let the insurance company know you...mean...business!") as head villain-in-charge, Ross Webster. Webster enlists Gus Gorman, played by comedy genius Richard Pryor, to find a way to kill Superman (played, as you know, by Reeve). Gorman, a goofball computer hacker who's already on the hook for siphoning company funds directly from the payroll database, agrees to use his computer skills for even more tomfoolery: to fashion a chunk of deadly (to Superman) Kryptonite.

But there's a twist! Gorman, unable to discover a key ingredient in the savior-weakening concoction, starts to give up. He then glances at his pack of cigarettes and sees the word "tar". He substitutes tar for the missing link in the recipe, which results in a strange looking lump of Kryptonite. Gorman dresses up as a US military commander at a parade in Superman's honor, at which Gorman "awards" our hero with the Kryptonite. Then what? Suddenly, Superman, unable to breathe, starts clutching his throat and chokes to death, right? One film franchise down, only Batman and Spiderman to go.

Well, no, of course not. Superman doesn't die, but he's still adversely affected. It seems this alternate version of Kryptonite -- perhaps the equivalent of "red" or "black" Kryptonite in Superman lore -- makes Superman behave in bizarre, selfish, and evil ways. He stops shaving, tries to put the moves on his (rather, Clark Kent's) high school sweetheart Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole) and arrives late to a rescue, blows out the Olympic torch with his super-breath for the fun of it, straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa, seems to sleep with (or at least be seduced by) Webster's buxom blonde side-woman Lorelei Ambrosia (actress Pamela Stephenson), and even assists crucial steps in Webster's villainous schemes. It's like a Super-dose of Punk'd. Eventually, Superman literally and figuratively splits in half -- the good (represented by Clark Kent) versus the bad (represented by Superman-in-need-of-a-shave) -- and the two halves fight it out in a pretty cool scene at a junkyard, something like Neo fighting Agent Smith(s) in the Matrix movies.

Here's the point. There's a scene in the film that always gets me. It's before the junkyard showdown when Superman is slouching at a bar, downing shots of alcohol, and thumping nuts at the glass decorating the wall behind the counter. With his super-thumps, he's wrecking the place (I wonder what an insurance company's stand on that would be! Probably, "Your policy doesn't cover damage caused by 'strange visitors from another planet'"). A crowd has gathered to witness the spectacle.

Lana Lang and her son are present in the crowd. As Evil Supe staggers out of the bar, the boy yells something like, "Hey, Superman! You're just sick! You'll be great again. You're just in a slump. You're Superman! I know you can do it! And I know you can hear me, you've got super-hearing!" Those words, from one of Superman's biggest admirers, ring in his ears and ultimately compel him to exorcise his Kryptonite-induced demons.

Lately, I've been trying to figure out what I'd like to see in today's R&B and hip-hop sound-scape and I keep coming up with: "Lauryn Hill". That scene in Superman III, with the boy yelling words of encouragement to the struggling protagonist -- that's how I feel when I think of Lauryn Hill. I want to say, "Lauryn -- can I call you that? No? Okay, sorry -- Ms. Hill, don't worry. You'll be great again. Those Grammys you won had red Kryptonite in them. You're just in a slump! I know you can hear me, Ms. Hill. I know you can do it!"

In the years since 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she's been commercially out of commission. There have been rumblings about a Fugees -- Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel, and Ms. Hill -- reunion album and rumors about a new Lauryn Hill album, evidenced by leaked audio and some legitimate previews. We all got a chance to see the Fugees together again on a BET awards show in 2005. The Fugees (but mainly Hill) also provided the climax for Dave Chappelle's Block Party, although the performance, unfortunately, wasn't included on the soundtrack. Those performances weren't jaw-dropping, but they gave us something to nibble on while awaiting new music.

Meanwhile, we heard reports of Ms. Hill's strange and diva-like behavior, as if she's been warring with an alter ego, particularly in light of her disjointed performance on her MTV: Unplugged No. 2.0 (2002) set. She didn't know all the words to her songs and seemed to be experiencing a breakdown. (It should be noted, however, that that's not the general consensus of Unplugged. Opinions are split, with some critics and fans viewing the performance as a groundbreaking self-portrait of an artist in touch with her virtues and vulnerabilities). Then there was the report that she was invited to the Vatican for a concert and, in the middle, she delivered an unscheduled speech about priests committing child abuse. There's another story about the lady we used to call "L-Boogie" showing up hours late to a concert, offering the excuse that she had a hard time picking her wardrobe. And, of course, the cake-icing anecdote: her insistence that she be referred to solely as "Ms. Hill".

I'd like to see the focus return to Hill's ability to make music. We'll see. I suppose that depends on Ms. Hill's focus. I do believe, however, that her return -- and a Fugees reunion -- would be great for R&B and hip-hop. Sometimes, I just want to yell like that kid in the Superman movie, "Hey, you're just sick! You'll win Grammys again! You're Lauryn Hill! I know you can do it. You're just in a slump." I can't wait to hear L-Boogie's voice in my stereo again, but I want new material, not the stuff I'm still playing from the Fugees' albums Blunted on Reality (1994) and The Score (1996) or Hill's lone smash-hit studio album. And, if the "Ms. Hill" rule was, or still is, in effect, I hope she knows that to us, the fans, the moniker "L-Boogie" represented our utmost respect and affection for her and her talent.

Hill, in my opinion, still has much to offer: she's charismatic, passionate about her ideals, and possesses one of the most distinctive voices this side of pop. Her seemingly effortless yet unstoppable lyrical precision makes her a candidate for one of the best emcees to ever breathe on a microphone. Plus, she's beautiful. Take everything into account, including an era perceived as a hip-hop slump, and the timing couldn't be more perfect for Hill's return. A full-blown Fugees reunion wouldn't be so bad, either.

Reunions, and comebacks in general, can be quite satisfying. I loved the times I saw New Edition perform together again, with Bobby Brown joining Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky, Mike, and Johnny for all the old dance steps. They were kind enough to hit a few of my favorite notes from "Mr. Telephone Man", "Candy Girl", and "Can You Stand the Rain".

Here are some other reunions I've added to my wish list, ones that I'd pay good money to see. Here's an abbreviated list, in no particular order:

1. Jodeci should come back, so they can revisit "Stay", one of their best known hits and we can hear Devante Swing whisper, "Don't talk...just listen...I lied...when I said I never wanted to see you again..."

2. I want Teddy Riley to put Guy back together, perhaps for a Neo-New Jack Swing tour. The airwaves just don't sound right without Aaron Hall.

3. Heavy D. should round up "the Boyz" and bring us another record. I was always surprised that, with all the music-centered episodes of TV drama Boston Public, Heavy D., who played the school psychologist, didn't steal the show with rap cameos.

4. Rakim should work with Eric B. again.

5. While we're at it, let's get Prince back with the Revolution.

6. I wouldn't mind a Tony! Toni! Tone! revival.

7. I'd love it if Whitney Houston could get back in the studio and...nevermind. It ain't gonna happen.

8. Can we please, please, pretty please (we promise we'll write good reviews!) get an En Vogue reunion? Okay, wait. Good reviews only if we get the original members. Otherwise, no deal.

9. No chance of an En Vogue encore? Okay, I'd settle for another release from A Tribe Called Quest.

On the flipside, there are reunions I would place on my "Please Don't Do This" list. Would you want to see a Jackson 5 reunion tour? I don't think I could handle the over-the-top explosions, the West Side story choreography, or Michael Jackson's socks and glove with the sprinkles. Same thing with *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys -- don't put us through the agony. Just like I don't want to see TLC with a replacement for Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. Some things are better left alone.

I don't feel that way about the Fugees. They shouldn't leave it alone. There's more to be done. When you crunch the numbers, I bet a Fugee reunion looks great on paper. But, more than the sales it could generate, wouldn't it be awesome if the Fugees went back to basics, back to the days before The Score went multi-platinum, before they did the remake-over-phat-beat version of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly", before everybody said Lauryn should break away from Wyclef and Pras and do her own thing?

Seriously. I'm not looking for a repeat of The Score or Miseducation. Personally, I wasn't thrilled with either of those albums. That's not to say the debut, Blunted on Reality, was a masterpiece. Yet, despite its lack of masterpiece material, the album exploded with vocal energy, diversity of subject matter, and gutsy lyricism. On The Score, I suffered through verses from Wyclef and Pras so I could get to Lauryn's verses. On Blunted From Reality, I enjoyed everyone's verses, from Wyclef's conscious rhymes about Haiti ("Refugees on the Mic") to Lauryn's warnings against forgetting your roots on "Some Seek Stardom". And when I say Wyclef's rhymes were "conscious", I'm not talking about the fluff that passes for "consciousness" -- you know, the verse that disses other unnamed rappers for being "fake thugs" or for being "too commercial" (you can't win -- you're either too deep into "the streets" or you're not deep enough). Blunted demonstrated that the Fugees had real thoughts and feelings to communicate. This was evident in songs like "Nappy Heads", "Vocab", "Boof Baf", "Temple", and the aforementioned "Refugees on the Mic".

I loved Blunted -- perhaps more for the group's promise of greatness than for the realization of that greatness -- and I was looking for more of the same on The Score. Instead, The Score transformed a trio of emcees who were hungry to express themselves into what I perceived to be approval-seeking pop stars. I'm still not sure what songs like "Fu-Gee-La" ("ooh la la la") and "How Many Mics" ("Say me say many money / Say me say many many money") were supposed to be about. And there were three versions of "Fu-Gee-La": the album version, the Sly & Robbie mix, and the Refugee Camp Remix. Groan. Not to mention the dreaded untracked preludes and interludes, a technique that found its way into Miseducation in the form of "scenes" and snippets of classroom dialogue.

The Score replaced the crew's frenetic pace with lyrical slow motion, plus a couple of covers. First came Hill's smokin' vocals on "Killing Me Softly", garnished with a beat resembling A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebum" and that really odd-sounding "one time" chant in the background. Then came Wyclef's "No Woman, No Cry". Yes, The Score is universally regarded as a '90s classic, as is Miseducation, which showcased more Hill-styled R&B and that let's-do-a-cover trick ("You're Just Too Good to Be True"). I'm constantly getting clobbered by my friends for saying this, but I could only put up with about half of Miseducation: "Lost Ones"; "Doo Wop (That Thing)", despite the fact that we overplayed it; "Final Hour"; the genius duet with D'Angelo, "Nothing Even Matters"; and "Everything is Everything" ("You can't match this rapper-slash-actress / More powerful than two Cleopatras / Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti / MCs ain't ready to take it to the Serengeti / My rhymes is heavy like the mind of Sister Betty").

I've always felt Hill and crew could do better. For one thing, they could stop preaching the virtues of originality while performing unoriginal material. More importantly, though, I'd love to hear them sound as hungry and ambitious as they did on Blunted. Perhaps crewmember Wyclef Jean would agree, since he's been quoted as saying the following:

Our first record that blew up in New York City was called "Mona Lisa/Nappy Heads". It's like we're going back to the core of where we come from. It's that record, the minute it comes on, you be like, "Oh, that's what I've been missing!"

Indeed. And that's why I want them to come back, especially Ms. Hill. Because I believe they've got it in them to excite us again. I believe they can do it. They're just in a slump. They'll be great again. I know they can hear me. They've got super-hearing.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


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