By Lisa Respers France
(CNN) — Every few years the buzz returns: Lauryn Hill is coming back.
The pattern rarely changes. An interview here, a spot performance there, and the gossip mill starts turning, proclaiming the return of a singer who is viewed by many as much an enigma as a brilliant talent.
So here we go again.
Hill, 35, is scheduled to perform in a few shows as part of the lineup of the Rock the Bells tour. In the past few days, a previously unheard track purporting to be of her singing has hit the Web. The notoriously private singer also recently gave an interview to National Public Radio, sounding very much like a star on the comeback trail.
“I’m starting to get excited again,” Hill told NPR. “Believe it or not, I think what people are attracted to about me, if anything, is my passion. People got exposed to my passion through music and song first.”
Not everyone is convinced.
“I’m not sure if there is a comeback,” said Gail Mitchell, senior editor covering R&B and hip-hop at Billboard magazine. “Maybe that interview with NPR was to prime people, but until there is an announcement or new music, I don’t think we can say that anything is set.”
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“Is she coming back or is she just doing what she has always done?” said Sandra Rose, who runs the popular gossip site SandraRose.com. “She performs, makes some money and then she disappears again.”
It’s not quite the career the world expected of Hill after her hit album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” was released in 1998 and went on to garner the singer 10 Grammy nominations (the most of any female performer at the time) and five awards.
It seemed as though the singer — who had initially found fame as a member of the rap group the Fugees and as an actress who co-starred in 1993’s “Sister Act 2” — could do no wrong as the reigning princess of neo-soul.
“She just had a deep soul that reminded so many of what was truly real and important,” said Karu F. Daniels, executive entertainment producer at AOL Black Voices. “She wasn’t talking about the bubble-gum stuff. And what she was doing was far from gimmicky.
“What she spoke about — and how she emoted it through song — is what was most appealing,” Daniels added. “Listening to her music today — 11 years later — still sounds like it’s new.”
But soon there were rumblings of eccentricities. During a Grammy acceptance speech, she took to the podium clutching a bible from which she read Psalm 40.
There was a lawsuit brought by a group of musicians who said they didn’t receive proper credit for their work on “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Essence magazine reported that in 1998 a quartet of music industry pros, Johari Newton, Rasheem Pugh, Vada No-bles and Tejumold Newton, sued Hill for songwriting and production credit on “Miseducation” and that the lawsuit was later settled out of court.
There was also much speculation as to whether she was legally married to Rohan Marley, son of music legend Bob Marley, and father of her five children. He spoke with People magazine two years ago, saying of Hill’s life away from the industry: “She loves [suburban life], being with her children, seeing them grow and instilling our teachings of righteousness to them.”
There also was talk about what some saw as her mystical side. In 2003, Rolling Stone published an article that included details of an alleged friendship with “Brother Anthony, a shadowy spiritual adviser” she reportedly became close with in 2000.
It was also in 2003 that Entertainment Weekly reported that during a Christmas concert performance at the Vatican, Hill launched into a tirade against the Catholic Church, saying ”God has been a witness to the corruption of his leadership, to the exploitation and abuses. It is the least one can say about the clergy,” according to Rome newspaper La Repubblica.
She recorded an MTV “Unplugged” album that was as much a confessional session as it was a musical performance. “I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage,” Hill said during one of many interludes in which she talked to the audience. “I couldn’t be a real person, because you’re too afraid of what your public will say.”
Hill, a New Jersey native who as a youngster performed the Smokey Robinson hit “Who’s Loving You” at the famed Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night, always seemed more at home on stage than off. “I was just a little girl, skinny legs, a press and curl, my mother always thought I’d be a star,” she sang on the autobiographical single “Every Ghetto, Every City.”
Blogger Rose said she met Hill at an early listening party for the Fugees and the performer seemed ill at ease in the spotlight even then, uncomfortable making eye contact and softspoken.
“I believe she just couldn’t handle the fame,” Rose said. “You have that a lot with many of the musical geniuses, including Michael Jackson. I think she just lost it.”
The singer — whom the Washington Post characterized as having “become a pop Sasquatch, appearing in public so infrequently she made Sly Stone seem like Heidi Montag” — disappeared off the radar for years at a time. When she did reappear, it wasn’t always to rave reviews.
A 2006 article in the San Jose Mercury News described Hill as showing up two hours late for a concert in which the story said she “did anything but kill them softly with her songs.”
“Wearing her hair in a giant Afro, and in baggy clothes that screamed thrift shop, she hardly sang at all, choosing instead to rap, Jamaican or African style, with a torrent of speeding words, backed by a 13-piece experimental jazz band with three guitars, three horns, two keyboards, a drummer, a thunderous stand-up bass and three singers,” the story said.
Last month, Hill spoke to NPR about her decision to abandon performing.
“There were a number of different reasons,” she said. “But partly, the support system that I needed was not necessarily in place. There were things about myself, personal-growth things, that I had to go through in order to feel like it was worth it.”
Billboard’s Mitchell said fans feel like Hill has unfinished business after such a wildly successful debut album.
“The part about what’s coming next hasn’t really been satisfied,” Mitchell said. “She hasn’t really formally followed up to see where that journey has taken her musically.”
Mitchell said there is a precedent with singers like Sade and Maxwell, who have been able to leave the industry for several years, retain their core fan base and return to critical and commercial acclaim.
“Maybe Lauryn can be like a Sade and come out with a new album every seven or 10 years,” Mitchell said. “There is just an aura about [Hill] and I think it’s still there.”
The singer seems very much aware that many people are waiting to see what’s next. She told NPR that she is “trying to open up my range and really sing more” in her rare performances
“With the Fugees initially, and even with ‘Miseducation,’ it was very hip-hop — always a singing over beats,” she said. “I don’t think people have really heard me sing out. So if I do record again, perhaps it will have an expanded context where people can hear a bit more.”