Recently I wrote about the angry music of Alanis Morissette. Lauryn Hill would not be the opposite, but close. Her lyrics seemed more about being hurt than bitter. Like Morissette, she was able to channel her emotions to make a huge initial impact musically.
Few ’90s albums launched with the same impact as Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill formerly of The Fugees, made hip-hop/reggae/ soul that I found easy to ignore. Maybe it was the reggae, but Lauren’s beautiful voice took a backseat to rap and the other elements that prompted me to hit skip on Pandora every time.
It wasn’t until I heard the first single, ‘Doo Wop’ did I realize that Lauryn was free from the confines of her old band. Now reggae (and almost rap) free, her voice would be allowed to shine. In doing so she managed to push the envelope in the fusion between soul and hip-hip. Along the way she would sample a vintage sitcom, Wu-Tang Clan, The Fifth Dimension and The Doors while raping herself on ‘Superstar’.
There had been plenty of run of the mill R&B acts before Hill that explored the two genres (song with a rap thrown in towards the end), but ‘The Miseducation…’ was by far the most effective in blending the two seamlessly to the point of neither not sounding forced or last-minute. Hill was as comfortable sampling the hard-core as evoking Motown, bringing hip-hop to the next level in the quest for mainstream acceptance in the process.
It took a small army of collaborators in New York, London and Jamaica to make it happen. On top of a production trio that included Hill, others like Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo and Carlos Santana put their stamps on the singles. In all there were over 20 artists who helped make The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill the biggest selling album of 1998. Some of them like a young John Legend would rise to become starts in their own right. In addition to being on top of the charts, the album also won a slew of Grammys including: Album of The Year, Best New Artist and Best Female Performance.
In all four Grammys were collected in addition to countless media accolades, as the 23-year-old Hill went from opening act to headlining superstar. The album’s central theme comes from the point of view of a Hill (or black youth in general) who recalls hard the lessons in life and the encouraging words of a community activist/mentor. A further narrative suggests that Lauryn, the victim of public school miseducation about her heritage is coming to terms with a history of lies from The Man.
Surprisingly no real anger here, just a bit of confusion and frustration. The sound bites are actually rather positive and not as preachy as they could be. The very title is a play on a Carter Woodson book The Mis-Education of the Negro. The real messages of self empowerment and responsibility however would come through in heartfelt and varied songs that dealt with hot topics like a choosing life over an abortion ‘To Zion’ and urban youth injustice ‘Everything Is Everything’.
One of my favorites, ‘Nothing Even Matters‘ features D’Angelo complete with “vintage record scratches” in an organ soaked gospel-like setting. Much has been said of the Santana track ‘To Zion’, but one of the album’s biggest surprises was the track ‘Forgive Them Father’ which lifts a rift from the ’70’s TV show theme for Welcome Back Carter.
That first single, the one that I thought could have been a new and improved Fugees song, had a classic Motown horns section in it. The musical references were vast, but mostly vintage, giving the album a kind of substance lacking from a lot of R&B. Like the neo soul movement that Lauryn could easily have been a part of, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill combined the best of the old and familiar with new hip-hop and street soundscapes.
Sadly Hill never seemed to recover from the sudden fame and fortune generated by this album. She struggled with depression and tax issues in the years that followed. Her talent is still in tact and at some point is hoped to make a full comeback. Soul and Hip-Hop are equally intertwined and dominate the charts (for better or worse) now thanks in part to this groundbreaking release.