The Benefits of Skipping Class
IN THIS PHOTO: Lauryn Hill photographed in New York City (1998)/PHOTO CREDIT: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at Twenty: An Album That Shows How Much We Need the Icon Back in Music
I have not long put my fingers down…
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
from writing about another legendary artist who only released one solo studio album (Jeff Buckley, Grace) before I come to another! Grace has just passed twenty-four but, today, we celebrate Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill turning twenty! I am not sure what is happening in Hill’s camp but, through recent years, she has been involved in legal problems and occasional appearances. It is a sad day today: Aaliyah, a celebrated American artist, died seventeen years ago today. As I mourn the loss of a great and innovative talent; I have been looking at a brilliant, decade-owning album that managed to elevate Lauryn Hill from Fugees member to a standalone star. Forty-three-year-old Hill has been in the worldwide media for the wrong reasons the last couple of years. I wonder whether there is music brewing and we will ever see a follow-up to her 1998 gem. I recall buying the album and excitedly headed down to the record shop to snap up something I have worn to death. Back when we discussed music and shared albums; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a revelation and profound earthquake in my circle. I had experience of music from black American music but had not experienced anything like Hill’s magnum opus. The incredible passion and command throughout the album blew me away; the way she switched from fighting and primed to tender and revealing was like nothing I had experienced before.
IMAGE CREDIT: The Ringer
The fourteen-track record documents social injustice and the plight of the black population in America; personal strife and romantic distress; emancipation and liberation in the face of repression and judgement. One gets history and sociology; politics, feminism and civil rights in an album that never judges and pushes people away. It involves listeners of all races and classes and captivates you with its moods and incredible dynamics. There are interstitial fragments of a classroom – the opening gambit sees Hill absent from the role-call – and it is a nice narrative and hook that gives the album a real sense of immediacy and response. In a way, it is a concept album but not one that is stiff and off-putting. When I was in school (in 1998) I was hanging with other kids my age (fourteen/fifteen) and we were chatting about the best cuts from the record and quoting lines. My instant favourites were Doo Wop (That Thing) and Everything Is Everything but, in recent years, I have started to embrace Lost Ones and Final Hour. Although there have been lawsuits and accreditation issues regarding The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – the songwriter working with other musicians but not giving them propers – we cut that aside and revel in an album that is Lauryn Hill taking charge and setting a bar. She opened doors for many black musicians and left a huge legacy.
Hill became a media icon and was adorning the cover of magazines around the world. It was rare in 1998 to have a black female being proffered and celebrated – it is weird and alien today in many ways! Hill helped assimilate Hip-Hop into the mainstream and provide a female bent. Her debut solo album brought Soul (1970s) to the fore and pushed boundaries. It is a sloppy listen but its lack of technical perfection is its masterstroke: the freedom and easy nature mean it is more accessible than you’d imagine. Hill’s delivery is flawless and she has inspired legions of musicians. I will continue to offer my thoughts and perspectives but, as it turns twenty, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has been receiving tributes from the worldwide media. Kuba Shand-Baptiste, writing in The Independent, shared her experiences and love of Lauryn Hill:
“Gifting the world ageless, raw anthems, and endearing skits about life, love and spirituality, The Miseducation spoke with an honesty that only a select few in mainstream R&B could indulge in at the time”.
The author went on to look at Hill’s recent output: a yearning to record new material but a reputation that is synonymous with tardiness, controversy and an all-too-brief Fugees reunion. She says, in spite of that, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is being utilised and resonating with modern artists:
“…That aside, The Miseducation has had a rebirth of sorts this year. “Ex-Factor” was sampled twice – in Cardi B’s “Be Careful” and Drake’s hit feminist-lite anthem “Nice For What” – renewing conversations about the lasting legacy of the 1998 album…There’s a reason that this album refuses to fade into the background. So groundbreaking was it, with its penchant for infusing social commentary with R&B, soul and hip-hop beats, that you could argue that Lauryn’s The Miseducation, like Erykah Badu’s Baduizm the previous year, was one of a small selection of albums responsible for changing the face of soul and R&B as we know it”.
“Her voice, just as powerful as it was sweet, soared on every track on the album. “Nothing Even Matters”, a timeless, honey-dipped duet with D’Angelo, could have easily faded into the background had it been sung by someone else. Miss Hill’s vocals, pained yet understated, transformed it into something much more”.
USA Today were among the thanksgiving that concentrated on different aspects of the album’s brilliance/birth:
“…And, beyond its numerical success, “Miseducation” is a true expression of artistic greatness. Interestingly enough, the two songs from Drake and Cardi B, which serendipitously sent Hill’s music back to the top of the charts, both channel one of the album’s most compelling narratives -- the power and pain of womanhood. Released when she was just 23, “Miseducation” was famously recorded amid several defining events in Hill’s life -- her pregnancy and birth of her first child, the dissolution of the Fugees and her breakup with former bandmate Wyclef Jean -- that provided emotionally fertile conditions for her to record a classic.
In particular, Hill credited her pregnancy for giving life to this period of creativity. “When some women are pregnant, their hair and their nails grow, but for me it was my mind and ability to create,” she told Ebony in 1998. “I had the desire to write in a capacity that I hadn't done in a while. I don't know if it's a hormonal or emotional thing ... I was very in touch with my feelings at the time".
TIME looked at the album’s twentieth and how it exceeded all expectations. One would think Hill, stepping away from a successful band like the Fugees, would bury herself behind a team of producers and writers; play it safe and bring in a raft of collaborators! Instead, she demanded to be paid for every interview around the album’s promotion and was not going to be guided. She fought against control and bad decisions; stood out as this raw and defiant personality who was taking no sh*t and wanted to be remembered. TIME looked at the record and how the creator created change and conversation:
“The album bends expectations in other ways, too. On the masterful “Doo Wop (That Thing)” — which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998 and won two Grammy awards the following year — Hill’s gaze is broad, and she cautions men and women against being exploited for sex and money. “Guys, you know you’d better watch out / Some girls, some girls are only about / That thing, that thing, that thing,” she sings on the tinny piano-backed hook. But also: “Girls, you know you’d better watch out / Some guys, some guys are only about / That thing, that thing, that thing.” Meanwhile, the strings-heavy “Everything Is Everything” is arguably a love letter to black communities and a meditation on injustice: “It seems we lose the game / Before we even start to play / Who made these rules?” Hill asks, extending a revolutionary sort of affection”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
One can say this – the sassiness and boldness – was a media campaign and a publicity trick. It was not at all: Hill was on her own and not willing to be dictated to and have her material changed. Here is an artist who was speaking about women’s rights and race; she was discussing heavy topics and, in an industry that sees labels and managers control and dictate; Hill was not going to let this happen. TIME looked at other effects and ways in which Hill stood out:
“In this light, one thing that makes Hill stand out is how boldly she’s sought to take to task the very system that catapulted her to international stardom in the ’90s. In the past, for instance, she’s refused to give interviews without being paid for them, and once reportedly demanded $10,000 to participate in a cover story for Oneworld magazine. While some may see this behavior as excessive, you could argue that, for Hill, it was a show of power — or at least a means of trying to reclaim power from a system with a history of nickel-and-diming black artists. (This seems to be why Aretha Franklin often brought her payment-filled purse on stage with her, within eyesight.) Even something as outwardly bizarre and eye-roll inducing as Hill’s insistence on being called “Ms. Lauryn Hill” (her artist page on Spotify is listed as such) reasonably has meaning: It’s a way for her to command respect for herself when others fail to deliver it, and to do so specifically in an arena in which the status of female artists and rappers always appears to be up for debate — something Nicki Minajhas pointed out in recent years. The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix got it exactly right when she wrote earlier this year, “I resist the narrative that Hill is crazy or lost — that she has failed because she has chosen not to participate in” — or, I’d add, has chosen to subvert — “that which causes her strain”.
Many are stating how, in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a dynamite that shook things up and opened eyes! In terms of women’s rights and racial tensions; one can argue we have gone backwards and not really made progress. There are fantastic black artists making changes and speaking loud but they are in a minority and there is a huge struggle ahead – so much inequality and a long way to go. Lauryn Hill’s incredible debut demands a follow-up. I wonder whether we will see that because, at a stressful and divided time, she is this endlessly-inspiring voice that could create some order and inspiration. Maybe it is the fact Hill has not followed up on her success and promise that creates the biggest impression. There is a chance a follow-up can be disappointing or take something away from her debut; maybe it will be ill-judged and lack any real bite. In any case; we have this incredible album that desires a brother or sister. Maybe, as The Ringer investigates, Hill’s age and youthful vigour might have inspired the album’s direction and quality:
“When an artist makes such a massively successful, groundbreaking, and format-defining work at a precocious age—think Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein at 20 or Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane at 25—it usually inspires the less precocious members of its audience (so roughly, everyone) to feel some combination of adoration and human inferiority: What were you doing with your life when you were 20, or 25, or 23? But maybe, too, there is something inherently youthful and thus reassuringly communal about such be-all-and-end-all swings for the moon. And so I like to temper this vision of an inhumanly precocious Lauryn Hill with the more human hubris of youth. “Lucky for us, like everyone in their twenties,” writes Kierna Mayo, the woman who famously put Hill on the cover of the preview issue of Honey magazine, “Hill imagined herself wiser than she really was”.
The piece also looked at modern black icons and the confidence of the contemporary female best. These are words I can get behind:
“The lesson is particularly resonant right now, this year. On social media, hyperbolic god-and-goddess worship of celebrities runs rampant. Queen Bey exists in a place so far above censure that SNL parodied what happens when a person suggests that something she’s done is anything less than great. Nicki Minaj, who is currently promoting an album called Queen, has been lashing out at anyone who dares question her greatness, sometimes sending her fan base to do her bidding and other times attacking constructive critics herself. But I was reminded reading Morgan’s book that criticism at its most measured and thoughtful can be an act of love, an act of seeing another person’s humanity and his or her potential for growth. Maybe this is what Hill needed—after all, Lauryn is only human. Perhaps that is how she should have been seen all along”.
I have vivid memories of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill arriving in my white, working-class background – something that seemed so far away from Hill’s existence and what she was singing about. It didn’t matter, mind: I can relate to every note, in a way, and so too could my friends in the schoolyard. The album became a bit of a favourite and taught me so much about the world. I was more educated – ironic, given the fact I was in school! – and excited to dive into every song and note. As I mark the twentieth anniversary of the album with new appreciation and ears; I wonder whether we will see Lauryn Hill return to class and grace us with another biblical seminar. That is in her hands but, if you have not heard The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; get in touch with a record that set a standard…
FEW have got close to touching!