The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a declaration of independence. With it, Ms. Hill put the entire genre of hip-hop on blast and elevated heartbreak to spiritual proportions.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a declaration of independence. It is a break-up letter to the bullshit routine of dealing with men who can’t stop hurting the women who love them. And it is a love letter to the liberated self, the maternal self and to God. It is an album of junctures: Between adolescence and adulthood, between Lauryn as ⅓ of the Fugees and Lauryn as a woman on her own, between being a child and being a parent. (She conceived of the album at 22 years old, single and pregnant with her firstborn.) Musically it arrived as the conceptual confluence of three of the most powerful musical ideas in all of blackness: hip hop, Motown-era soul and reggae. Doo-wop harmonies and the flushed distortion of voices singing their pain were cast over taut snares and hard boom-baps. The lo-fi production and warm, thickly muzzled bass tones purposefully recalled vintage vinyl on a rainy Sunday afternoon. After having written for Whitney Houston, having traveled to Detroit to sit with Aretha, it makes sense that Lauryn Hill returned to look upon the Fugees and their hard, brick-city, midnight-winter rap with a newfound skepticism.
Ms. Hill’s background (and perhaps her most developed skill set) lay in hip-hop, and Miseducation had the effect of putting the entire genre on blast. The mid-’90s had seen the ascendency of the genre to corporate-level sales numbers, aided in large part Bad Boy Entertainment, their bromidic disco samples and unrepentant tales of jewelry and gunplay, their rallying cry of “tits and bras, ménage à trois, sex in expensive cars.” Meanwhile, regional acts like N.W.A. and Geto Boys had introduced an incidental violence so extreme that it mutated into horrorcore, and even reigning king Nas, once known as the sharpest and most conscious of project prophets, had ridiculously rebranded himself “Esco” and was spinning elaborate drug tales in juvenile heist raps. The Fugees entered into this mayhem first to settle the score. But it was Lauryn Hill who came to re-educate the whole people.
Soul and hip-hop aside, Miseducation is most deeply fueled, spiritually and musically, by reggae. Six years before, the release of the immensely popular Songs of Freedom boxed set pushed the Marley legacy once again forefront of urban youth culture. By 1998, every halfway-conscious hip-hop head knew at least the basics of Marley’s primary theology: That black people had been subject to centuries oppression at the hands of the un-righteous, but that God was on the side of the oppressed. This meant that you were to live in peace and love with all things, for this is part of your covenant with God, but you were also not to take no bullshit from no oppressor lying down.
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Ms. Hill didn’t just gain inspiration from this philosophy; she quite literally inherited it. Half of Miseducation was recorded in Jamaica at Marley’s own Tuff Gong Studios. The baby she carried was conceived with Rohan Marley, son of Bob. From this regal lineage, Miseducation strikes out with the lionhearted courage of a crusader. But it can’t stay there. Metaphors of God soldiers and Lions of Judah are good as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. The problem is that such a worldview is fundamentally male, which is to say more ubiquitous than correct. Lauryn Hill was tasked with something more difficult than that: to walk a series of intertwined tightropes specific to young black women. To be vulnerable, but fearless. To tell the truth, but look beautiful in doing so. To be driven by love, but ready to fight. To be soft enough to mother a newborn, but hard enough to protect her family. At 23 and pregnant, she was too young to be responsible for this much. It’s just that most people didn’t notice it, because on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she handled these competing drives so beautifully.
The first track is the hard “Lost Ones,” a resentful fuck-you over tight snares with a hook loosely based on Sister Nancy’s heavily sampled 1982 dancehall classic “Bam Bam.” The song does everything short of calling Wyclef out by name, but Ms. Hill is in full battle-rap mode, putting her former partner on every type of blast: “L been this way since creation/A groupie call, you fall from temptation/Now you wanna bawl over separation/Tarnish my image in the conversation.” While “Lost Ones” is about the dissolution of a business and artist relationship with Wyclef, “Ex-Factor” is about the loss of a personal one. Here, the approach highlights Ms. Hill’s soul mode, the instrumentation and background harmonies drawing heavily from Aretha’s Capitol sessions. It’s maybe the album’s most successful evocation of this concept, milking the two-chord chart for all its attendant melodic variants while a stellar guitar solo (still a valid trope in 1998) calls to mind Muscle Shoals session man Wayne Perkins’ rousing turn in the overdub of the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle.”
Hearts, and the men who break them, are a primary theme of Miseducation, but Ms. Hill’s implicit liberation theology elevates this commonly-visited issue to spiritual proportions. When she partners with Mary J. Blige on the affecting “I Used to Love Him,” she spells out the universal interconnectedness of heartbreaker and victim in plain terms. “I see him sometimes and the look in his eye/Is one of a man who’s lost treasures untold.” These songs are the spiritual forebears of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The sentiment is echoed when Bey sings “When you play me, you play yourself”—why, these women ask, would you hurt a woman who is fighting for the liberation of your people?
Ms. Hill’s other mode is the raw, smoky rhyme delivery on tracks like “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Superstar,” and “Final Hour.” Somewhere around 92 bpm had become the standard tempo of golden-era East Coast hip-hop, and Ms. Hill’s flow—confident, determined, and creeping deliberately just a hair behind the beat—is absolutely resplendent at this pace. It breathes a stunning, martial life into razor-sharp bars like “And when I let go, my voice echoes through the ghetto/Sick of men trying to pull strings like Geppetto/Why black people always be the ones to settle/March through these streets like Soweto.” At her best Lauryn Hill flirts with legitimate prophet status, digging to her deepest to harness the power greater than herself; a power we all need to survive and overcome. She offers it to us. I’m out here, she seems to say; you can be out here, too.
Even though this is when Ms. Hill is technically at her best, these songs don’t comprise the highlights of the album. The heart of Miseducation is too vast, too imperative to find its complete representation in a series of slick punchlines. This is what separates Lauryn Hill from her male contemporaries, and why it feels that the album almost demands to be more rooted in song than verse. Rather than an iteration of Nas, she is Stevie Wonder merged with Joni Mitchell over classic East Coast beats. It is true that her vocal skills are stretched to their limits on numbers like “Everything Is Everything” and “To Zion,” but what does it matter? Like the winsome classroom interludes woven throughout it, this is an album about learning to love. On “To Zion” she is breathless, learning love of God through love of her child; on “When It Hurts So Bad,” she learns (painfully) about the love others, and on the title track, she reaches the apogee of this cycle by learning love of self. “Deep in my heart,” she sings over a swell of Hathaway-esque strings, “I made up my mind to find my own destiny.”
The thing about destiny, though, is that we never know what it is until it happens. Ms. Hill could not have predicted that this wildly successful album would plunge her into an ugly legal battle about credit and compensation with New Ark, the amateur production team she partnered with to make it. Her immense personal drive made it too easy to cast her in the public eye as a megalomaniac intent on hoarding all the accolades for herself. When two people who are used to being fucked over (black men and black women) get together, the collective trauma makes it highly likely that each will feel the other is taking unfair advantage. The ensuing court case, with all its finger-pointing, shady interviews, and painful depositions, took a tremendous psychic toll on Ms. Hill, whose subsequent retreat from the public eye effectively continues to this day. Bad business practices (the parties signed no agreement before work began) no doubt contributed to the squabble, but a bigger factor may have been that the 23-year-old Hill, girded up for a liberation battle, and fleeing from what she felt was an oppressive partnership with Clef and Pras, perhaps believed that everything she made from that moment forward, for justice’s sake, belonged entirely and exclusively to her.
On Miseducation, Lauryn Hill demonstrates that she was one of the coldest MCs of her era. It has always been the case, however, that a woman could rhyme ridiculous and still never be considered the best of them all. In a way, it didn’t matter. Even if she wanted to, Ms. Hill could not have spent a career talking about crooked cops, gold chains and project come-ups. Being a woman meant that she had to, for a time at least, talk about the truth of her self. When your body is the very weapon of your oppression, it sometimes must be through the art of self, soul, and spirit that you create your freedom. ( Pitchfork )