The Internet damn near broke down on December 15, 2014, when D’Angelo dropped his third studio album, Black Messiah, in the late evening. Hardcore D zealots always knew that day would come — either he would miss the spotlight, the making of the music (and it being digested on a widespread scale), or simply run out of money and have to fund his life.
So yes, the day came after several false starts. Polaroids of D’Angelo’s life would flash before our eyes on the Internet over 14 years’ time, where mugshots were chased with rough song leaks, leaving everyone wondering if there would be a return from the elusive singer whose pecs once became his gift and his curse. Legend has it that his hiatus was due to living his life, learning the guitar, and doing other things the Internet can’t comprehend, because once you’re out of our everyday presence, you lose your right to existence.
Fear not though, because D’Angelo did return, with an album that moved units and show dates that have had fans in awe from the Apollo to Paris. Balance has once again been restored, no questions asked.
His female counterpart was Lauryn Hill. The two arrived at around the same time: Lauryn’s Blunted on Reality with the Fugees debuted in 1994, D’Angelo’s debut, Brown Sugar, arrived in 1995, Fugees’ The Score came in 1996, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, and D’Angelo’s Voo Doo in 2000. So for argument’s sake, we had a dose of D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill on average every year for six years. When there wasn’t an album, there was a tour, and when there wasn’t a tour there was an interview or something to remind us that we were in the presence of creative geniuses. (Do you remember their dual cover story for Trace, where they were credited with “changing the face of soul music”?) The music industry was tossing heavy titles and lofty aspirations for two kids at the time who just wanted to make music. There is a ton of responsibility attached to those partially self-imposed goals, and neither felt they could live up to them.
Lauryn Hill had a different set of circumstances, but the sentiment was outwardly the same. She, like D’Angelo, arrived at a crossroads in her career where her level of fame became equated with her agreed levels of hypersexualization. (Do you recall her Details magazine cover where she was dipped in gold and wearing red hot pants?) D’Angelo’s came from the video for his Voo Doo single “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” where he stood naked and that imagery followed him to every stage on his Voo Doo Tour. He wanted people to hear the music and not stare at him, but staring at him made his music go further than it ever would have had he performed in a snow suit. Lauryn’s journey diverted once she penetrated pop music.
In 1999, Hill won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Miseducation, but ultimately suffered from emotional fatigue after receiving it. The album centered around her tumultuous relationship with Fugees band mate Wyclef Jean, and it was written/recorded while she was pregnant with her first son, Zion. (His father being Bob Marley’s son Rohan.) It was a perfect storm you could arguably never replicate. When would Lauryn ever again be recovering from one relationship while transitioning into a new one and bursting with pregnancy hormones? But that’s what we had been accustomed to and that’s what we wanted forever. While D’Angelo was using his hands as censor bars on his body parts during the Voo Doo Tour, Lauryn was attempting to stretch her contralto vocals to their limits on The Miseducation Tour, hoping to bring the octave that she had while pregnant and often falling short of that and not being able to talk for days. It was pressure for both of them, too much, and so they left.
And now they’re back.
But here is where the story changes. In D’Angelo’s case, he took a comfortable absence. A pause pregnant enough to deliver multiple albums, but he returned with just one, and it was perfect by D’Angelo-fan standards. He didn’t document his unraveling; he just hid. Sure, we saw the occasional overweight photo and aforementioned mugshot, but for the most part, we didn’t see D’s struggle.
Lauryn on the other hand has provided enough fodder to frequently write her off. After she cut off her locks in 2001, her Unplugged album became a point of contention for fans. (Some maintain their disappointment, while others would listen to Lauryn cough for 60 minutes and call it "beautiful.") The loosie songs she would drop intermittently were of the same ilk as Unplugged, so you either loved them or hated them. A failed Fugees reunion, elaborate makeup, habitually late performances, a prison bid for tax evasion — this was the new norm for the Lauryn Hill fan. There was no “waiting” for a return. This was the hand we were dealt with. However, slowly but surely, she is coming back.
Her Small Axe Acoustic Tour has been garnering praise in its simplicity, with Lauryn on a couch with her guitar, singing and rapping like we’ve missed for so long. There is no new material though, just a re-hashing of the old done so in a way that is a return to their original compositions. (Past show dates have involved Hill changing up the arrangements of her classic songs.) Rumor has it there is a new album somewhere, but like D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill is suffering from overperfection. A return of that magnitude would require her own Black Messiah. She might not feel her current product reflects that.
So here we are, after well over a decade, witnessing the return of two creative geniuses, for whose returns we were cautiously optimistic. Often life can’t travel as fast as the speed of the Internet, and maybe it takes an artist decades to catch up. The most important thing to keep in mind is that they haven’t creatively departed, they just couldn’t meet our expectations.
Who are we anyway?
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(Photos from left: WENN, Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)