Lauryn Hill has a cold. Seven months pregnant with her second child, the 23-year-old singer is systematically going through the pack of Pathmark tissues clutched in her left hand. She hasn’t quite reached the ”I hab a code in my node” phase, but she’s clearly suffering. Her large brown eyes are watering (which, curiously, has the effect of making her look more alert than ill). Every so often she takes a whiff from a bottle of rubbing alcohol to help clear her sinuses.
Despite her condition, she looks ravishing, somehow transforming a pair of denim overalls and a red body stocking into a profound fashion statement. Perched on a couch in the same three-story red brick house in South Orange, N.J., where she grew up (and which now serves as Lauryn Hill Central, a combination studio/business office/hangout), she’s explaining one worrisome side effect of her pregnancy.
”I just want to eat anything gritty. Instead of craving for pickles and ice cream, I’m craving for baking soda and cornstarch. The other day I was chewing on somebody’s fingernail. Isn’t that horrible?” she asks with consternation.
Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, Hill’s gnawing problem probably ranks about 0.1. Besides, once she gives birth, those bizarre snacking impulses should end; Hill’s 14-month-old son, Zion, will have a new brother or sister; and she can get on with the business of being what she’s become virtually overnight: the Aretha Franklin of the new millennium.
Until recently, Hill had seemed an unlikely candidate to assume such a mantle. Who would have predicted that the young sister earnestly aping Roberta Flack on the Fugees’ Grammy-winning 1996 remake of ”Killing Me Softly With His Song” would find her own voice as quickly and dramatically as she has on her first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? But R-E-S-P-E-C-T is due. Written and produced entirely by Hill, Miseducation is a stunning deeply personal tour de force that fuses old-school soul, reggae, hip-hop, gospel, and even doo-wop in a wholly fresh and satisfying way, showcasing her singing as much as her rapping. Recorded at studios in New York and Kingston, Jamaica, it’s also a soapbox from which Hill holds forth on topics ranging from stardom, motherhood, the ghetto to the state of hip-hop and, especially, that whole messy love thang in no-holds-barred fashion.
In one respect, the Aretha analogy shortchanges Hill. The Queen of Soul has always been primarily an interpreter of other people’s songs, depending on producers to provide ideal musical settings for her stellar voice. For her part, Hill (who incidentally wrote and produced the title track of Franklin’s current album, A Rose Is Still a Rose, as well as directed the video for the song) is doing it all, exercising benevolently autocratic control over every aspect of her art. She even ixnayed the usual cavalcade of guest stars who crowd most current hip-hop and R&B discs (although she does share duets with contemporaries Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo).