The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: 20 years on

Almost nothing else from this era can match the mythology or legacy of this work

Lauryn Hill performing at Brixton Academy, London in 1999. Photograph:  Chris Lopez/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images

Lauryn Hill performing at Brixton Academy, London in 1999. Photograph: Chris Lopez/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images

 

At the 1999 Grammy Awards, Lauryn Hill marked her coronation by singing a simple song about her newborn son. With legendary axe-man Carlos Santana caressing his acoustic guitar by her side, Hill delivered a cutting four-minute sermon on the pressures facing young women at pop music’s top end. Looking out on to the industry’s most-influential, it felt like a reckoning more commonly associated with historic speeches or biblical passages.

The song, To Zion, saw Hill starkly lay out the career issues faced when, aged 22, she became pregnant. Sample lyrics: “‘Look at your career,’ they said. ‘Lauryn, baby, use your head.’/But instead I chose to use my heart.” Best known as one-third of mega-selling rap group The Fugees, alongside Wyclef Jean and Pras Michél, Hill has been issued a bleak warning by industry forces: her rise would be stifled by the presence of a child. Instead, she parlayed the experience into The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a legendary document of hip-hop-soul fusion, righteous morality, and female – particularly black female – excellence.

Even the choice of song at the Grammys was brave. Hill eschewed the box office singles she had in her arsenal for a sweet, no-frills performance. She collected five awards that night including Album of the Year for Miseducation, the first hip-hop album to pick up the gong.

Don’t get me wrong, awards are not a barometer of quality – beware anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. But the Grammys ‘99 serves as a key bookmark in Hill’s career. Five months after the release of her album, the woman from New Jersey’s elevation to the top tier of American musical talent was solidified. It could almost function as her Motown 25, the night Michael Jackson unleashed the Moonwalk and, with lightning in his veins, reached the absolute peak of his powers. For Hill, like Jackson before her, the difficulty of living life as an artist with superpowers would later manifest.

Cultural footprint

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill turns two decades old this week (Hill is scheduled to play the 3Arena as part of a 20th anniversary tour on November 30th). Almost nothing from its era can match the mythology of the piece or the reach of its legacy. This was 1998 – for context, the biggest-selling record in the US that year was the Titanic soundtrack, which has a cultural footprint that only currently exists in memes. Yet the freshness of Hill’s immaculately produced sound and the punchiness of her prose have not dimmed in 20 years.

The cover, featuring what appears to be Hill’s face burned into wood, like a religious apparition sent from a higher power to reveal itself, has become classic pop iconography. Meanwhile, her inability to complete a second studio album has become legendary. Like Jackson, she’s often gazed upon as someone weird or other. She’s reduced to tabloid headlines and talked down to because of uninformed speculation of her mental health and, like many women, the role motherhood has played in her life.

We tend not to reward woman geniuses because the cult of genius mostly extends to men. Consider why the adjective is so rarely thrown on Beyoncé’s name when compared to her contemporaries. But a work of genius, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill most certainly is. It oozes musicality, power, righteousness – all in the package that’s infinitely gorgeous on the ear, something all great pop music must be before it is anything else.

Miseducation is hip-hop, yet mostly out of step with the capitalistic bling-bling era it emerged in and completely ignorant to the buzzing, pastoral G-funk grooves coming out of California. It is neo soul, yet difficult to slide next to records by, say, D’Angelo or Maxwell, who was tinkering with a style much more rooted in smoky, dapper sounds. Hill wielded all these styles with perfect poise, yet operated in a lane entirely of her own that felt contemporary.

It is an album about women’s hearts and the men who break them. The soul of Miseducation was forged in the fire of The Fugees. Hill’s stormy romantic relationship with Wyclef said to have led to the split of the trio in 1997, though she did work on Jean’s solo album, released that same year. Miseducation came in the wake of a break-up not just from a lover, but the group that had served as her primary creative outlet. The fracturing roughly coincided with her first pregnancy, to Rohan Marley, son of Bob.

Crooning

Hill as a Fugee is typically remembered for crooning over a chilly Enya sample on Ready Or Not and her powerhouse vocal on their cover of Killing Me Softly. Powered by these singles, the group found selling records easier than Michael Jordan sank jump shots. Moving into the deeper cuts reveals Hill to be a swaggering emcee too. She had all the components to be a superstar. Plenty of people still fondly remember her for her role in Sister Act 2, where in a class full of strong vocalists, her character in the one deemed to have the most supernatural talent. It was pretty good casting.

Yet Hill arrived into a corrosive environment. The bombastic sounds and visuals of glitzy late-1990s hip-hop saw the role of women artists marginalised. In this new world, soulful legends like Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shante and Salt ‘n’ Pepa were struggling to find a place. The best way in for a women for talented spitters like Foxy Brown and Lil Kim was to attach themselves to a heavily influential crew. When Cardi B last year became the first female rapper to score a US number 1 since Hill, it was a reminder of how lonely the road once was.

That song was Doo Wop (That Thing). Back in 1998, the video for was an ubiquitous MTV presence. Scored by the itty-bitty Charlie Brown piano, warm horns and smooth drums, the clip features two Hills singing side by side at a block party in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. On one side of the split screen, the singer is decked out in full late 1960s attire, complete with a bob cut and a zebra-striped dress, evoking memories of The Supremes. On the other side of the screen, the present-day Hill raps each verse. The track, and video, encapsulated Hill’s dedication to fusing classic doo wop and Motown sounds with contemporary hip-hop. Yet that’s only part of the story. Hill dabbles extensively in reggae, even leaning into a distinct patois on the barbed rapping of Lost Ones. Rohan Marley’s influence feels tangible. Half of Miseducation was even recorded in Jamaica at the famed Tuff Gong Studios.

Hill tended to approach singing and rapping as two distinct disciplines, rarely tuning her voice to something between the two. As a traditional singer, she was a powerhouse vocalist, blessed with incredible control of her larynx. Meanwhile, her rap style was verbose. A song like Final Hour is the kind of deep-thinking conscious rap number that Nas was only occasionally making post-Illmatic.

Beating Heart

Miseducation’s beating heart comes in its centre: When It Hurts So Bad and I Used to Love Him. The former is a desperate lament as Hill, over soulful orchestration, reveals her fruitless endeavour to keep a relationship going (“I tried and I tried and I tried/ To keep him in my life”). The sentiment is continued on I Used to Love Him. A smooth marriage of rap and R&B, the beat samples Raekwon’s knucklebuster rap classic Ice Cream. It’s probably no coincidence that features the Queen of Hip-Hop-Soul herself, Mary J Blige, who had made a career successfully marrying the two.

Then there was Ex Factor, perhaps the album’s most lasting single. The song is a heartfelt meditation that, in language that’s wickedly simple, offers a perfect encapsulation of relationship bullshit. “Loving you is like a battle,” sings Hill. “And we both end up with scars.” It sums up about 90 percent of love stories that end up evaporating into dust.

The album’s popularity was somewhere in the region of pizza and sunny weather. Yet Hill’s insistence on keeping the music industry at a distance has been the stuff of lore – the star who had the keys to the kingdom but decided not to walk through the door. The closest thing in her output to resemble a follow up to Miseducation is MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a live album released in 2002 which features lengthy, garrulous meditations over an acoustic guitar with occasional flashes of brilliance (see: Mystery of Iniquity). Even the scattered tracks she’s released over the years, rough as they are, always contain an idea, a moment, when Hill’s genius is present.

Yet the legacy of Miseducation can be felt in so many tangible forms. Carlos Santana’s Supernatural dropped the following year, with R&B songs like Maria Maria feeling like the natural kin of his work with Hill. Soul auteurs such as Alicia Keys filed into the room right behind Hill. Rapper Freddie Gibbs recast the iconic album cover on his mixtape The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs. Both Cardi B and Drake sampled Ex Factor. For me, that impossible gambit the industry asked Hill to walk – mother, pop star, altruist – feels laid on Lily Allen’s most recent record No Shame, which covers the breakdown of a relationship and maternal guilt.

Fuel for tabloids

Her mental health has been a constant source of fuel for tabloids. Even Wyclef Jean has engaged, rather insensitively, in attempting to diagnose Hill following a series of Fugees reunion shows, telling Blues & Soul magazine in 2009: “In my personal opinion, those Fugees reunion shows shouldn’t have been done, because we wasn’t ready. I really felt we shoulda first all gone into a room with Lauryn and a psychiatrist.”

She’s also fought off attempts to downgrade her legacy and artistry. Hill has faced lawsuits from writers and producers claiming they didn’t get all due credit for their work on the record. These charges have been leveled with Hill as recently as earlier this month, when respected jazz musician Robert Glasper accused her of stealing music.

Theft is a hefty charge. That Hill exhibited agency on her album is certain, though, and the idea that genius can’t be genius when it asks for company is absurd. Yet there may have been a feminist cause for Hill wanting to minimise the role men played on her music. Women’s role, after all, has been minimised for decades. “This is a very sexist industry,” she has said. “They’ll never throw the ‘genius’ title to a sister.”

Hill’s remit was burned right into the album’s handle: Miseducation – all there is to be unlearned. When she spits, “My emancipation don’t fit your equation,” from Lost Ones, Hill could be taking aim at Wyclef, or maybe the entire industry. When she repeats the lyric now, maybe it could target music fans troubled with her sparse output since then.

Whatever happens, though, we still have an album that captured the hefty weight attached to a woman’s soul and preserved it so we can always understand. The kind of catharsis The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill offered its creator, we’ll probably never know.

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