The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out in 1998. It was Lauryn’s first solo album after her work with The Fugees, and is one of my favourite albums of all time.
I was introduced to The Fugees as a child, and Lauryn’s solo work as an early teen. I was getting into rock music when I heard Miseducation, and recently rediscovered it once again, having inexplicably sidelined the album for a couple of years.
Released only three years after D’Angelo‘s Brown Sugar, Lauryn Hill almost single-handedly popularised neo-soul in the mainstream. In 1999, she was the first woman to ever be nominated for ten Grammys (of which she won five.) On stage, she famously proclaimed, “This is crazy. This is hip hop!” The album itself broke sales records for a female artist, and remained on the Billboard charts for a whopping 81 weeks.
Miseducation is stripped back and bare at a time when most hip hop was going the other way – Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records was popularising heavy samples and a party attitude, losing touch with the loud, proud politics we’d found in NWA and Public Enemy. Miseducation went against the grain; not only was she female, but she was honest. She used her voice, and her lyrics, and barely any samples; I think that’s a big part of why this is so timeless. As entertaining as it is inspiring, there’s no MC quite like Lauryn Hill, none so fresh, truthful (for sake of truth not shock-factor,) socially minded or, simply, talented.
It’s the kind of album that means more to me each and every time I listen to it.
For starters, it was one of, if not the first album that has shaped my now-slightly-obsessive adoration of neo-soul, soul, R&B and hip hop. An absolute masterpiece blend, Lauryn effortlessly transitions from crystal clear R&B melodies to rapping with the kind of natural flow most MCs would kill for, and everything in between from reggae to pop to gospel. That range alone is astounding.
Check out this old clip of her freestyling over Wyclef Jean’s guitar playing.
From the very start, it’s on the ball. Lost Ones is snappy and tough, infusing a Jamaica vibe (where it was recorded) with the simple hip hop beat. There’s crystal clear power and confidence in her words – you can instantly hear that she’s found her feet in a post-Fugees world. The melodic loop throughout the chorus is one of those little licks that stay in your head for days, and you’re not even annoyed about it.
I love how bold the opening lyrics are – our introduction to the full picture ahead. “It’s funny how money change a situation, miscommunication lead to complication, my emancipation don’t fit in your equation…”
Then you’ve got something like To Zion, which couldn’t be more different. Featuring the recognisable guitar flickers of Carlos Santana, the soulful, deep, intimate song instantly draws you in. Lauryn’s son is named Zion, and this song is an ode to him, but there’s also underlying religious subtext throughout – something I only realised in later years.
Of course, we can’t go past the empowering Doo Wop (That Thing), the single that won her two Grammys, four MTV awards and a #1 spot on the Billboard charts. With that bright piano loop and and funky bass, the message is not only coherent but fucking powerful, about self-respect and generally not acting like a money-grabbing hoe. There’s always been speculation around what specifically that ‘thing’ is – Money? Sex? Fame? All of the above? It was so cool for a solo female MC at that time with a song like this, about not having to sell yourself short to be recognised and respected.
Ah, the beauty of an album that continues to unfold more than a decade after you first heard it……
When It Hurts So Bad and I Used To Love Him (featuring the impeccable Mary J Blige) are dark and distressed yet full of strength, in a way unique to Lauryn Hill, and Lauryn Hill alone (and maybe Mary J Blige.) She sings of anger and heartbreak in a totally non-nostalgic way, and they’re not only phenomenal songs musically, but again, they’re empowering. And while I can’t exactly relate on a cultural or personal basis like I could, say, Silverchair, these songs definitely meant something to me as I was going through my teens and discovering certain emotions within myself.
I Used To Love Him is easily one of the greatest female duets in R&B. Just take a moment to enjoy this song.
I see this album as a foundation; a springboard. I didn’t grow up listening to much rap or R&B, and this opened my eyes and ears.
Not only did it introduce me to the artists featured, like Mary J Blige and D’Angelo (the album also features a then-unknown John Legend) but a whole world of artists and genres – female singers in particular, like Erykah Badu and India.Arie.
The depth of this album is not lost, either. Each song can be interpreted from numerous angles, with subtexts and hints and historical references at every step. Not only do I discover something new each time in a musical sense, but I learn something new. There’s a lot of lyrics – some veiled, some not so much – that deal with race, relationships, culture, motherhood and religion, and the more I listen, the more I learn. I love music that has the capacity to teach, and this has increasingly become one of the best in that respect. It’s an album that taught me that all kinds of people can be introspective, and all kinds of music can deal with all kinds of emotions. That sounds broad, I know, but considering this was one of my first true windows into an entire genre and culture, it feels so weighted, so important. Every step of Miseducation has been an education for me, and that in itself has immeasurable value.
I could wax on and on about why I love this album, but I guess the fundamental reason is that it is really, really good.
Here’s the whole thing for you.