The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: can she recapture the magic as she hits the road?
Voice of The Fugees to play the 3Arena in Dublin in November as part of European tour
Lauryn Hill performs on stage in Ohio in 2018. Photograph: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters
The DNA of urban music was fundamentally reconfigured on August 25th 1998: the day The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was unleashed upon an unsuspecting planet.
As the voice and face off The Fugees, Hill had already helped convey rap out of the musical undergrowth and into the mainstream (1996’s The Score having shifted record-breaking 16 million copies).
Now, at age 23, she was about to go one further with an album that altered perceptions of what a woman in hip hop could aspire towards and achieve. It laid down a marker, scorched a line in the earth, started, in its own humble, unprepossessing way, a revolution.
Twenty years later, it has been announced that Hill is to reengage with The Miseducation as she takes it on the road for a European tour that includes a 3Arena Dublin date on November 30th. Performing an old LP in its entirety is textbook for artists of a certain vintage (and with a pension that could do with urgent topping-up). Hill, though, has never been textbook and her revisiting of Miseducation is a cause of genuine surprise and delight – though both responses are understandably tempered by caution.
Few artists, after all, have played so fast and loose with their legacy. As much as Bob Dylan appears to take a stoic delight in assailing fans with sacrilegious updatings of his best loved music, so Hill has, across the past two decades, seemed in two minds over whether she wants to be defined by her only studio solo record – or to slip free of its shadow.
Whiff of misogyny
Consider, for instance, the social media paroxysms attending a Brixton Academy London concert in 2014 at which she presented radically revised readings of favourite cuts from the LP –reworkings that indicated she’d spent the intervening years studying Sonic Youth b-sides and experimental jazz.
“She spits the reflective poetry of Final Hours as a rapid-fire rap,” went one UK review. ‘To Zion, her gentle paean to her eldest son, is rendered as a blare of freeform jazz.”
“Waste of time and money,” added Twitter. “90 minutes late. Plus somebody kidnapped Ms Hill and replaced her with an indie tribute band!”
The furore carried with it an arguable whiff of misogyny. When Dylan takes a cleaver to his repertoire he is praised as an innovator easing into the curmudgeonly genius phase of his career. So too was Prince, allowed contort songs into whatever shapes he fancied and still walk away with a cavalcade of back-pats. Hill, no less a boundary-breaker in her own way, was by contrast all but dragged to the stocks.
Miseducation, on its debut, was like nothing anyone had heard before – a deeply spiritual party record, an often tortured soul-baring that nonetheless insisted you get up to dance.
Nor have we experienced anything like it subsequently as Hill has lived out “difficult second album syndrome” as pop’s version of the stations of the cross. She has trekked from one crisis to the other – including, in 2013, a three-month sentence in a minimum-security Connecticut prison for tax evasion. Through it all signs of a genuine creative resurrection have been negligible.
The degree to which the success of her stand-alone debut – 19 million copies sold and counting – had apparently unmoored her were clear on her 2002 follow-through MTV Unplugged No 2.0. Ostensibly a live LP, the record was really a one-person wrecking ball, Hill baffling fans by abandoning soul and r’n b for rickety folk, the performances interspersed by monologues about the crippling price of stardom – ramblings that went on longer than the music squeezed in between.
Woozy and wonderful
These and other eccentricities – in May 2016 she was two hours late for a concert in Atlanta because she was “aligning her energy with the time”– have undoubtedly cast a shadow. They have also thrown into relief what makes Miseducation so special and why, recent controversies notwithstanding, her next tour will probably be a sellout.
The record is credited with helping commercialise soul music and providing a unique (and then rare) female voice in hip hop. Its name was inspired by Carter G Woodson’s book The Miseducation of The Negro, a favourite of Hill’s parents during her childhood in Newark, which argued that African-Americans had been culturally indoctrinated to seek out inferior places in society.
“The title of the album was meant to discuss those life lessons,” she explained at the time.
“Those things that you don’t get in any text book, things that we go through that force us to mature. Hopefully we learn. Some people get stuck. They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and these are some really powerful lessons that changed the course and direction of my life.”
Over its woozy and wonderful 14 tracks Hill delved into unsuccessful love affairs (including a rumoured romance with Fugees partner Wyclef Jean) and the joys and terrors of motherhood. The key song in the latter regard was To Zion, a tribute to the son she’d had (with Rohan Marley, son of Bob) in the face of pressure from behind-the-scenes figures to undergo a termination.
Yet what made the record ultimately so powerful was that, for all its unflinching aspects, it was a celebration – a point illuminated by lilting lead single Doo Wop (That Thing), a flutter of sunshine trapped on vinyl.
Come November we will find out whether it, and Hill, are still capable of shining a light.