Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998
I know, you thought I had completely given up on this venture. Well, so had I. Not intentionally. I can’t exactly blame business for my lack of writing, because the truth is, I wrote the most when I had the most school work to do, and since graduating I haven’t had nearly the deadlines! Perhaps I’ve been at least partially word-paralyzed by the immensity of the album that has for months now been my next listening project: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Miseducation is an album that I never need a reason to play. In 1998 it rightly swept the Grammies, and gave a ridiculous know-it-all teenager a strong down-to-earth and talented female role-model. Although I hadn’t experienced half of the life Lauryn sings about (love, motherhood, living in a ghetto…) I felt as though she was singing words from my own soul. Maybe she was just showing me where my English-raised soul was located. Either way, it was an experience of something much deeper than cool sounds.
So I will try my best not to wax sentimental here. Without the nostalgia, which I do realize can be terribly powerful, there is plenty to appreciate. Let’s start with the cover art. We find ourselves looking down on a sloped wooden desk, like many times before, oblivious to the lesson spouting at us, tracing with our finger the outlines scratched by earlier students, and wondering who sat here before us. It’s clear what we have in our hands is a story of a student who has become the teacher. As soon as the record begins our interest is peaked even further when we realize that our protagonist is missing from the roll call… and my mind’s camera seems to pan out and zoom to the real location of Lauryn.
And this is when I tend to wake up. Whenever The Lost Ones kicks in as my alarm, Lauryn spits words at me with a beat that makes it very hard to remain horizontal. Her words are harsh and motivating with a “wake up and pay attention” feel, as she calls her listeners on every mistake of pride and hypocrisy. We’re getting ready for a lesson. And it’s clear once we’re back to the classroom that the topic of the day is love. The entire album moves between two educational settings: the traditional classroom and wherever Lauryn happens to be.
Yet Lauryn’s first love song of the album is not one we’re used to. Instead of being about a beautiful man or incredible sex, To Zion is about the process of choosing to keep her child, and finds her focus on spirituality, complete with a backing gospel choir and the prayer-like solos of Carlos Santana. Meanwhile back in class the kids are talking about what it’s like to be in love.
Superstar and Final Hour have always felt like a pair to me and even though they have entirely different feels, they are connected by their concern with being real, calling artists away from selling out with choruses like, “Music is supposed to inspire,” and “You can get the money, you can get the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour”. She draws attention away from celebrity to personal integrity (“I’m about to change the focus from the richest to the brokest”) warning us all to “watch out what you cling to”.
When It Hurts So Bad begins to sound a little more familiar as an R&B ballad of unrequited love, and has never gripped me like the rest of the album, along with I Used To which I barely noticed. More than that, its seeming fickleness bugged me: She used to love him but now she doesn’t? What’s that about? Yet I was forced to pay more attention this time considering not only Lauryn, but Mary J. is also belting out the lesson. The song is really about a unhealthy, even abusive, relationship that is suffocating these strong, beautiful women. I wonder if we are meant to experience the juxtaposition of the fickle sounding background hook and the verses that reveal a true salvation song – much like an outsider might react to a breakup, without knowing the whole story.
Forgive Them Father may sound a bit preachy, but it also proves to me that no one can rap biblical references like Lauryn can. Is she a prophet? Yeah, probably, and no wonder she is so easily misunderstood now.
I have only at this point listened to half of the album and still there is plenty left to say. Nothing Even Matters reigns as the most stereotypical love song on the album, completed by adding arguably the sexiest voice alive to the duet; D’Angelo is just hot, no matter if you see him or hear him or are usually attracted to men or not. Then you have the rest of the instrumentation: the organ add a really unique texture to the track, and the finger snaps are as groovy as finger snaps have ever been.
From here on out, we are deep in love, metaphorically and literally, with Lauryn herself. Ex-Factor is a true-to-life reflection on the complications of love and breaking up, where the singer flits between being the one trying to let go to the relationship, and the one desperately hanging on.
Doo Wop (That Thing) was easily the biggest single from this album. Everyone remembers this song, and everyone should remember the music video. This track is the perfect example of how great Lauryn is at everything she does: we have layers of perfect old-school soul-filled harmonies, exciting energy, and the heaviest fattest rhymes proving that “female rapper” is no oxymoron, all the while spitting a lyrical truth that though we might call it love, some guys/girls are only about that thing.
The retro feel of Doo Wop (That Thing) launches us into the nostalgic track Every Ghetto, Every City, full of references of early hip hop years that give me the imagination that it’s where I’m from, even though I’m a white girl from a suburb called New Westminster.
Everything is Everything at the moment does nothing but remind me of Mia Michaels on So You Think You Can Dance. Every instrument on this track hits hard, like Lauryn’s rhymes, which give a contrasting background to her smooth vocals on the verses and choruses. Ms. Hill reminds us that change is always around the corner, so we need to take advantage of what we’re given in the time being to make that change a good one. Or perhaps that regardless of how “schooled” we think we are, we always have the chance to be educated by life.
The album concludes (but doesn’t end) with the title track, that’s given a vinyl record quality, and I’m forced to imagine what it would be like to have this album on vinyl for real. The organ and keyboard are superfluous and sound like church and pure nostalgia.
Finally The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill wraps up with two bonus tracks: A cover of You’re Just Too Good to be True, and Tell Him. I think they’re bonus because we’re not really meant to hear them as a part of the story, but as love songs, applicable and appropriate. I love these tracks, but I’m going to end this here. I feel as though I’ve made up for months of missed writing, and by now you’re probably listening to the album anyway.