On a shady tree-lined street in a sleepy New Jersey suburb, where the laughter of kids kicking a ball punctuates the steady whir of a lawn mower, a happy family pours out of a three-story brick home. A trio of boys bound down the cement stairs, their ponytailed sister close on their sneakered heels. Trailing behind is their mother toting a baby in a car seat. They all pile into a black Escalade, perhaps on their way to school or the supermarket.
It’s only after the car drives off that you realize that was no typical soccer mom with her brood. That was Lauryn Hill, the soulful, model-gorgeous singer who set the summer of 1998 on fire with her groundbreaking album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill went on to sell more than 8 million copies and win five Grammys, trumping Madonna for Album of the Year. Heck, you couldn’t even hide under a rock without hearing “Doo Wop (That Thing).” But now, 10 years after the bright promise of her solo debut, Hill, 33, has retreated to the near-total anonymity of suburban life, living with her mother, Valerie, in a South Orange home she bought years ago. A mom of five kids with Rohan Marley, she has put out only a handful of new tunes in the last few years.
Given that her children are all under the age of 12, her decision to lead a quiet life wouldn’t have raised eyebrows had she not at the same time developed a reputation for erratic behavior whenever she did appear in public. In 2001, Hill recorded MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 in front of a live audience and baffled concertgoers with her between-song ranting, which was later included on the CD. “I’m crazy and deranged,” she declared, prompting Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn to use words like “unhinged” in his review. In June 2002 she told a Carnegie Hall crowd that she was “a mess”; in 2003 she stunned an audience at a Vatican Christmas concert by attacking the Catholic Church for the child-abuse scandal.
Longtime pals say it was around this time that the singer also began asking to be called “Ms. Hill.” She explained why to Essence in 2006: “I’m Ms. Hill because I know I’m a wise woman. That is the respect I deserve.” But her friends didn’t see it that way. “When she said, ‘It’s Ms. Hill,’ I said, ‘Excuse me?'” says rapper Pras Michel, who met Hill when she was 11 and was a member of the Grammy-winning hip-hop trio the Fugees with her. “She also told me she was gonna have people call her Empress.”
Also hurting her reputation was the fact that a 2005 Fugees reunion album was derailed, and Hill’s chronic lateness during a brief tour didn’t help. “I kid you not, every night I’m onstage for 45-50 minutes before she would come out,” Wyclef Jean, the third member of the Fugees and Hill’s ex-boyfriend, told PEOPLE last year. At last summer’s Nice Jazz Festival, Hill—sporting frizzy orange hair and exaggerated makeup—arrived 90 minutes late and sang inaudibly. “Un scandale,” proclaimed a Nice-Matin headline.
It has been a startling transformation from the vibrant, brainy singer who wowed even other celebs with her live shows. “All these stars wanted to go backstage and see her: Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Prince,” says music engineer Gordon Williams, who worked on Miseducation. “Everybody was starstruck by her. She was very, very funny and superintelligent, like George Carlin or Chris Rock.”
Raised by parents Mal, a computer consultant, and Valerie, an English teacher, in South Orange, Hill “was always interested in finding out about other people,” says Carol Petrallia, her high school English teacher. “She was a very good listener.” As “L-Boogie,” lead singer for the Fugees, Hill remade Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” into a ’90s classic. On the night she stormed the Grammys in 1999, she was humble, bringing a Bible with her onstage and quoting Psalm 40.
But Williams believes that despite Hill’s serene exterior, she may have been overwhelmed by her extraordinary fame. At the height of her success, he remembers, “she didn’t have a minute in the day when there wasn’t something going on. She wanted to be a regular person. She tried to accommodate everybody all the time.” Another source says her association with a spiritual adviser, which began in the late ’90s, “made everything go crazy. She’d say his preaching made her feel like what she did in her career was bad.”
Though some longtime acquaintances say that she now greets them with blank stares and seems troubled and withdrawn, there are occasional glimmers of the old Lauryn Hill. Williams last saw her in 2005 in the studio. “When she started rapping, she smiled and laughed,” he says. “I was like, ‘That’s L-Boogie!’ But she wanted people to call her Ms. Hill.” Right after that, Williams was told Hill no longer needed him. “Now she has this whole persona,” he says, “and everyone is on pins and needles around her.” Last year her old bandmate Wyclef Jean publicly voiced concerns about Hill’s emotional stability. “When you’re so successful, if you don’t have one person around you that can talk some sense into [you],” he told PEOPLE, “it’s over.”
But Hill, who declined to comment for this article, has two people who have remained constant in her life the past decade: her mother and 36-year-old Rohan Marley. A musician-producer and the fourth son of Bob Marley, he has five children with Hill: sons Zion, 11; Joshua, 6; and John, 5; and daughters Selah, 9; and a still-unnamed 7-month-old (“We want a name that means ‘Glory of the Ark’; for now, we call her Baby Marley,” says Rohan). Marley denies that there is anything wrong with Hill, despite Michel’s and Jean’s claims. “They tell the record label, ‘She’s crazy,’ and then the next minute they say, ‘Oh, Rohan, can you call Lauryn [for me]?’ It’s hypocrisy,” he says.
The duo are not married and don’t live together, but Marley says they are “spiritually together,” though he lists himself as “single” on MySpace. He says Hill is focused on raising their kids. “She loves [suburban life], being with her children, seeing them grow and instilling our teachings of right-eousness into them,” says Marley, adding that Selah is a gymnast, Joshua does karate, John loves school and Zion plays guitar and bass. He says Hill “is beautiful and looks 17 years old” and does “what regular people do: She cooks, shops, goes to restaurants, regular things…. She became more in tune with the earth. But down and depressed? No.” As for her lateness to shows, he explains, “She wants to look perfect for her audience. People think she’s disrespectful, but she’s just a perfectionist.”
A source at Columbia Records, which still has Hill under contract, says she’s currently “on hiatus” but Marley says she’s always dreaming up songs. “She writes music in the bathroom, on toilet paper, on the wall,” says Marley. “She writes it in the mirror if the mirror smokes up. She writes constantly. This woman does not sleep.”
Still, will she be able to cope with the spotlight again? “I kind of stopped and almost became a civilian again,” she said in a 2007 interview. “[So] getting back up is almost like getting on a huge locomotive … train. You have to … work out the kinks.” Those once close to her hope she somehow pulls it off. “Lauryn’s real love and joy, besides her kids, is her music,” says Michel. “It’s the best healing process for her. If she can come out of whatever she’s in and say, ‘I’m back!’ she’d be better than the best of them right now. That girl has something that can move mountains.”