The Revisit: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (20th Anniversary)


Ms. Lauryn Hill, needs no introduction now just as she didn’t on this same day twenty years ago when her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released via Columbia Records. After amassing a multitudinous audience as a star in her own right among her Fugees peers – where she doubled as soulful songstress and emcee – and of course with her mesmerizing performance as sweet but somber and charming Rita Watson in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, few people doubted the Jersey-born multi-hyphenate’s limitless range and truly inimitable talent. Still, Miseducation was far beyond what anyone could have imagined (except Hill herself, that is). On August 25, 1998, I was 10 years old and patiently waiting for my grandmother to drive me to the mall so I could exhaust what was left of my allowance at the F.Y.E. on this CD. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” had been playing on literally every radio station and my kind-of-new No Skip Discman was ready for more from “L Boogie.” In hindsight, I knew very little about the themes explored in this album back then. Somehow though, each song felt like I was being enlightened to a certain degree, or like my big sister (which I did not have) was putting me on game through her own experiences. In 4th grade, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill felt like watching feminine adulthood through a window. Now, at 30 years old – having lived, breathed, cried, run from, run back to, feared, felt and loved the potency of my own feminine fury – I know that, that window was actually a door through which I’d inevitably walk myself; and I think it’s safe to say Ms. Lauryn Hill deserves endless flowers for this all-embracing offering.

Class begins with an in-session bell sounding off at the album’s start. As an attendance roster is read aloud, one student, Hill, is confirmed absent. Was she implying that the innocent and youthful ideas of ardor and romance are so pure with correctness that her miseducation was rooted in her own haste to experience love prior to receiving proper love lessons? Or was her miseducation rooted in the idea that we know love to be many things, subjectively speaking, and that the variety of things we learn to identify as love – literally from childhood – are often what confuses us about it? Part of the beauty of this project is that we’re still coming to understand its different interpretations two decades later. The thoughtful intention of accenting the album’s tracks with artfully candid and earnest conversations about love by Ras Baraka (a Newark eighth grade teacher, poet and Councilman candidate) and a few area students deserves its own essay, if we’re honest. But the everlasting relevance of friendship betrayal, life-altering heartbreak, motherhood, career frustrations and spiritual enlightenment explored throughout this album are all tied to love; and whether it’s twenty years from now or twenty years from then, these interluded enthusiasms remarkably punctuate the music’s contrasting diversions to Ms. Hill’s lived experience.

In what I’ve recently dubbed the “Don’t Hurt Yourself” of the ‘90s, “Lost Ones” is a lyrical guns blazing, humbling introduction to exactly where the “nonviolent” emcee stands on her recently soured relationships (namely, Wyclef of the Fugees). A tight beat introduces the number before completely coming to a reverencing halt for the calm and strong opening bar, “It’s funny how money changes situation.” The beat immediately drops again and we get a “fool me once” declaration that, though just twenty-two years old, Ms. Hill was all but dumb and ultimately not at a loss in any of her industry encounters to date. From “Everything you did has already been done,” to “I was hopeless, now I’m on Hope Road,” to “you might win some, but you just lost one,” she has no mercy on her muse except for in the third verse where she offers an educational warning about the workings of karma. A second interlude introducing the day’s topic (love) follows and flows into “Ex-Factor.” With a universe of emotional weight distressing her vocal expression, Lauryn begins with a desperate, fatigued “It could all be so simple” approach to reasoning with her lover. Like Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” before it and Daniel Caesar’s “Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song)” after it, “Ex-Factor” encapsulates the essence of boundless humanness with every “it aint working” and “this is crazy” reminder to herself. Juxtaposing the inevitable failure of this relationship with her desperation to make it work, Lauryn adds tremendous, tear-snagging texture to the closing refrain with the amplification of her raw vocal harmonies.

“To Zion” is easily one of the most praised deep cuts of this album. Music critics who weren’t fans of the album as a whole at least appreciated what Lauryn intuited here. Having had her first pregnancy outed by a media personality, Lauryn faced a ton of criticism and unsolicited opinions on what to do and why. With that knowledge – and now considering our somewhat evolved social climate’s cultural ideas on unwed mothers – “To Zion” is truly worth another (more intentional) listen. A hustling surrender that is so uncannily mature for a twenty-two-year-old (in the ‘90s at that) underlies the grace with which she robes herself maternal. This song is more than a mother-to-child love letter. It’s also an ode to self-realization and liberation, in the face of almost everything that begrudges it. Like a cherry on top, Carlos Santana’s guitar adlibs hula-hoop a marching rhythmic pattern that sonically mimics Lauryn’s passage into motherhood.

“Doo Wop (That Thing)” is obviously pretty problematic now in 2018. It’s preachy and judgmental and even condescending in spots, sure. But we’d be lying if we didn’t admit that this narrow-minded way of thinking was most commonly held by a great majority of us back then, and especially by those of us who grew up under the indoctrination of religion’s suffocating moral traditions (which Lauryn had). While ‘90s Hip Hop had been primarily taken over by diamonds, money, sex, drug pushing and crime tales, Lauryn wanted to use it to empower. She encouraged tenderness with “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem,” and challenged listeners to go deeper than the surface (beyond superficial concerns of vanity) with “How you gon win when you aint right within?” So while “Doo Wop (That Thing)” condemned with the same “nasty, put some clothes on” style messages as Destiny’s Child’s “Nasty Girl,” it maintained the same “a lost soul can’t lead the people” intention as H.E.R.’s “Lost Souls.” I motion that we all appreciate this song – with its ‘50s barbershop-inspired “woos” and “oohs,” punchy, mid ‘90s Hip Hop/Soul knocks and Hill’s anti-peer pressure talk – for what it was at the time regardless of how our transmogrified school of thought feels about it now. It’s important to note that the most passionate of the project’s interludes ends this track with ideas surrounding varying levels of love (love vs. in love vs. unconditional love), which comes across like a silent admission that she – herself, having missed the lesson and all – may not have been privy to the fact that her feminine power couldn’t help her attain or maintain a loving relationship. Also notable, (unwed) Lauryn is visibly pregnant in the visual for this cut which, personally, feels like her way of offering a “no judgement here, just speaking from new found, self-preserving experience” disclaimer more than a finger-shaking chastisement.

Miseducation’s middle section is pivotal, though often left out of most discussions about the project. In “Superstar” (with James Poyser playing a real harpsichord flip of a sample from The Doors’ “Light My Fire”), she challenges the music industry’s lack, pinpointing style redundancy (“everything you drop is so tired”) and wasted power (“music is supposed to inspire”). If anyone had listened closely enough, we’d have heard the singer lamenting her divorce from commercial success in these lyrics. Lauryn sees music as mission, not money. It couldn’t have ever worked with the money-minded vultures doing all the gatekeeping then (hence the deeply personal “Mystery of Iniquity” from 2002’s MTV Unplugged No 2.0). After telling us that Hip Hop’s origin records were heart conversations, she moves on to deliver a deeply felt “dissertation” of truth in a whirlwind of words, metaphors and punchlines on “Final Hour.” Here, Lauryn evinces skill and swagger that eclipses her (mostly male) Rap comrades’ range and she still wasn’t hell-bent on approval from anyone but God in the end.

A smoothie of the best elements from Hip Hop, R&B/Soul and Reggae music make up Lauryn’s canvas for “When It Hurts so Bad.” Mourning a toxic love, she uses words and melodies to name the internal tug of war between fighting for love and suffocating it. This is followed by the most tellingly relevant interlude of the album where the students are heard discussing confusion in love and how TV builds upon that confusion with misleading images of love. It feels like Lauryn’s absence from class is especially loud in this moment, a direct nod to a critical love lesson that could have, perhaps, saved her. While there’s no real way to teach love, I think this was her subtle way of disrupting the toxic romantic cycles that generations of mistaken lovers have wrestled with. And Mary J. Blige joins in to cosign that cause on “I Used to Love Him.” A gritty, off-kilter ballad, the women relate by sharing stories of giving too much to men who misused them. Exposing personal struggles and the growth it brought about, Mary and Lauryn find empowering worth in their new lives after letting go. Then switching gears to divine love, “Forgive Them Father” bridges Lauryn’s past to her lucid spirituality. She begs God’s forgiveness on behalf of all the malevolent and manipulative souls that, “say all the right things to gain their position, then use your kindness as their ammunition, to shoot you down in the name of ambition.”

Part public explanation – part personal memoir, the funky “Every Ghetto, Every City” finds Hill thoughtfully leveling with her listener by way of an homage to her hometown. Then, in floats the D’Angelo-assisted classic “Nothing Even Matters” (which requires literally no explanation as it’s unarguably Top 5 Greatest R&B Duets of All Time). Following that is the rugged string and piano intro on “Everything is Everything” where Lauryn drops gem after gem from her vault of regal sapience. (Fun fact: John Legend played keys on this.) Thereafter, we hear that same sagacity turn personal on the title track, a (most) musical diary excerpt on her own becoming that’s draped in seraphic organ and enchanting melodies.

The album ends after a brilliant cover of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” “Tell Him,” in my humble opinion, is one of very few perfect examples of music’s power. Hill’s hypnotizing harmonies lace humble verses of loving devotion to God that, in certain spots, double as a prayed message of romantic hope, and it’s all so thick with hankering boundlessness that it sticks to your lungs long after it fades out.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sold over 422,600 units during its first week (breaking the record for first week sales by a woman artist), later sold over 8 million copies in the US and over 19 million copies worldwide, won five Grammys (including Album of the Year) and is Ms. Hill’s only studio album; so timeless, she’s still touring it twenty years later. From the chalkboard smell of those interludes to the nimbus of glory and womanhood orbiting each of these fifteen melodic transcripts, this album is an integral part of music history. It’s known that many relationships were harmed during the making of, and as a result of Miseducation. But we can’t ever deny that if there were no Lauryn Hill, there’d be a gaping hole in the fabric of music history. She was the conduit in which these works were conceived; so to say that she “stole” this album from her musicians is a gross exaggeration of uncredited writing and production panaches. As sticky as all that may be, no men in the industry – from label executives to the artists that keep their companies going – have shouldered such an onerous burden of an accusation. No one was ever under the impression that one person went into an empty studio with a blank notebook and a pen, and came out with this completed album. But this amalgam of biography and therapy hinged with the honeyed tone of Ms. Hill’s rhymes and the diasporic soul in her alto timbre shifted Hip Hop’s locus into a realm of tender that once transcended it. You can’t steal that. We don’t accuse mothers of stealing when their previously premature babies are returned from the incubators that nursed them to health (which include the care of doctors and nurses). We don’t accuse bakers of stealing when their pastries are retrieved from the ovens that made them edible (which includes the assistance of Sous Chefs). The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill exists because Lauryn Hill had an undeniable intimacy barometer and a hell of a story to tell. And the claim that she “hasn’t done enough” is not only an undercut to her influence over much of today’s R&B/Soul, but an insult to the life she poured into this album’s manifestation.

Past and current controversy aside, Ms. Lauryn Hill admirably and respectably refuses the artist’s role as machine by choosing only to create when inspiringly moved to, and that’s proven in this album as much as it is in the absence of a sophomore studio effort. When the industry attempted to manufacture an image for her, organic verisimilitude was all that she was willing to give and that’s when we got MTV Unplugged No 2.0. Then, after the poor response and harsh criticism of that – in what we could view as a re-education of sorts – she removed herself. No arguing. No pleading. Just a decision. That’s why, beyond the self-sacrificial exposure in her work, we’re celebrating the music legend for the legacy of Miseducation and her influence as a self-willed, sonic adventurer. Women are entitled to legacies on their terms and I think this album was Hill’s way of owning the joy, pain, disappointment and optimism of hers. We thank and salute Ms. Lauryn Hill for the lessons on embodying that power in music and in choice.

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up.” -James Baldwin

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