‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ turns 20

Lauryn Hill
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Ruffhouse Records · August 1998

Twenty years ago, Lauryn Hill found herself at a crossroads. She was 22, pregnant with her first child and faced the daunting task of having to restart her career as a solo artist. The Fugees had just broken up after winning two Grammy awards for their album The Score and her relationship with former members Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel was fractured. The three wouldn’t come together to perform again until 2004. Artistically isolated, Hill dove headfirst into creating her first and only solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It went on to sell 8 million copies in the U.S. and earn five Grammys.

The first sound on the album is a school bell, followed by a soft guitar and a teacher’s voice calling attendance. That voice appears in various interludes throughout the album and belongs to Ras Baraka, who currently serves as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. As the classroom comes to order, Baraka begins taking attendance, and when he reaches Hill’s name, he repeatedly calls it out, implying to listeners that she isn’t there. The cover art is a rendering of Hill’s face carved into the top of a school desk. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is, at its crux, an album of youthful rebellion; it’s her way of grappling with adulthood. She spills years of heartbreak, anger and pride into the tightly packed one-hour debut.

The LP also came to fruition during a time of musical reviviscence. Hip hop was finally being taken seriously, joining the ranks of Motown-era soul and reggae, which were reaching a striking popularity peak in the late 90’s. Hill used this to her advantage, mixing the three into a sound that became uniquely her own. Despite her youth, Hill was coming from an experienced music career. At that point in her life, she had already written for Whitney Houston, worked with Aretha Franklin and had years of rap artistry under her belt.

Hill opens Miseducation with the hard hitting ‘Lost Ones,’ exuding a sense of anger and pride in the state of her career. A simple boom-bap sound is backed by scattered vocals alluding to brick-city – otherwise known as Newark – a part of Hill’s New Jersey upbringing. Hill’s flow spills out in messy triplets as she addresses her former lover Wyclef Jean, telling listeners all about what had been going on in her life. “It’s funny how money change a situation / Miscommunication leads to complication / My emancipation don’t fit your equation / I was on the humble, you on every station / Some wan’ play young Lauryn like she dumb / But remember not a game new under the sun.”

Then, right when you think the song is going to remain a hard-hitting rap anthem, it shifts beautifully. Thanks in part to the work of Boston-based producer Che Pope, ‘Lost Ones’ turns into a callback to “Bam Bam,” the 80’s reggae anthem from Sister Nancy. Hill’s vocals become silky as she sings through the refrain to the style of Sister Nancy’s song. Despite this, the wordplay that was at work earlier in the track is not sacrificed. “You might win some, but you really lost one / You just lost one, it’s so silly how come? / When it’s all done, did you really gain from / What you done done? It’s so silly how come? / You might win some, but you really lost one / You just lost one, it’s so silly how come?”

‘Lost Ones’ encapsulates the essence of Miseducation perfectly. Hill’s masterwork goes on to provide listeners with hit after hit, bouncing from, and at many times combining the artistry of, soul, reggae and hip hop. ‘Ex-Factor’ is an R&B track that has imprinted itself into the history books, still being sampled in radio hits today, including Drake’s ‘Nice for What.’

‘To Zion’ brings in Carlos Santana on guitar for an emotional ballad about Hill’s experience with an unplanned pregnancy. ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ brings Hill’s hip hop roots back to the forefront as she tells it like it is behind piano-based production. The album continues in constant fluctuation, with ballads like ‘When It Hurts so Bad’ being followed by soul anthems like ‘Nothing Even Matters’ featuring D’Angelo.

Soul and hip-hop aside, Miseducation is most deeply fueled by reggae. In the late 90’s, Bob Marley was once again at the forefront of urban youth culture, and by 1998, he was also central to Hill’s music – half of Miseducation was recorded in Jamaica at Marley’s own Tuff Gong Studios. The baby she carried during the album’s recording was conceived with Rohan Marley, Marley’s son. And with Miseducation, Lauryn Hill took a consistently male-dominated genre and made it accessible to young black women. Hill recorded herself at her most vulnerable and at her most fearless. And in the same manner she presented herself, Miseducation is a complex piece of work driven by love, but ready for a fight.

As complex as it may be though, Hill also uses the album’s contents to remind us of her youth and inexperience, with the meticulously scattered interludes of Baraka’s classroom forum on the nature of love. At one moment, near the end of ‘Every Ghetto, Every City,’ Baraka asks his students, “What does love mean to you?” After a brief silence, one of the students responds with a simple question. “Love?” The room erupts in laughter as the song fades out.

Lauryn Hill produced her opus at the age of 22. She was confident in her emotion, in her passion and in her ability, but along the way, she makes sure to remind listeners that she is nowhere near being fully mature. The album title is about her miseducation, and the release of the album, while tremendously successful, led to her subsequent self-imposed exile from the music industry. She gave her all to this 20-year-old masterwork, and it drained her. At this point in time, Lauryn Hill has already become a mutation of a distant icon the likes of Nina Simone, and she’s only 43.

Most recently, she has regained public attention with a tour celebrating her album’s twentieth anniversary. Despite this, Hill remains hidden to listeners. Her presence on stage sharply contrasts with that of the album. Hill’s own voice was front and center on Miseducation. In concert, she is described as a conduit; directing the band, fretting over the sound system and even mistreating tour members.

With the release of Miseducation, Hill was pinned with a very particular celebrity status and cultural expectation at a tremendously young age. Twenty years later, it seems as if she is still reeling from the album’s effects on her, and is actively using it to learn and grow even more. The class Ras Baraka set into motion during the album’s intro is still in session.

Listen to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill here:

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