By Nardos Haile
(Source Forward Times):
Singer, songwriter, producer, rapper and multi-hyphenate Lauryn Hill is a household name for a reason. The eight-time Grammy winner masterfully created one of the most influential hip-hop albums in the history of the genre and she wrote and produced it when she was 22 and pregnant with her firstborn son. As the genre that Hill redefined turns 50, and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” turns 25 — there is a need to look back at why the album still hits just as hard and continues to be a touchstone in people’s lives.
Hill redefined the genre in her personal style – combining reggae, hip-hop and soul to create her own sound separate from what was prominent in a male-dominated Biggie and Tupac, NWA-fueled hip-hop scene. Her distinct, pioneering sound even made the crossover to pop — literally reinventing what mainstream music looked like after decades of Black artists had been excluded from the larger conversation in popular music. “Miseducation” was the first hip-hop album to receive an album of the year Grammy award. In her winning speech, the then-23-year-old Hill said, “This is crazy because this is hip-hop music.” She remains the most recent Black woman to win album of the year at the Grammys.
Surrounded by a male-dominated ‘90s hip-hop scene, the cross-gendered misunderstandings fueled competition between Black men and women and their perspectives on money, sex and power. Female hip-hop artists like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott questioned who held the power and how women wielded the power, sometimes through money, sometimes through their vulnerabilities or through their sexual prowess.
Further, Hill posed all these questions in her solo album. In her wordsmith-like rhythms and reggae and neo-soul twinged beats, she answered them wittily, standing proudly in her Black womanhood. Her lead single on “Miseducation” was “Doo Wop (That Thing).” It became Hill’s first and only Billboard No. 1 hit. The song touched on the same power struggle woven through the theme of the album. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” served as a cultural criticism of superficial love and relationships and women finding their independence, self-worth and power outside of their physical appearance and men.
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again.
You know I only say it ‘cause I’m truly genuine.
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem!
Baby girl, respect is just a minimum.
N***** f**k up and you still defending ‘em
It’s silly when girls sell their souls because it’s inside.
How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?
Not only did Hill beautifully paint the portrait of the authentic experience of Black girlhood and the transition into womanhood (“To Zion,” featuring legendary guitarist Carlos Santana), she also wrote about real, unrelenting heartbreak. Some of the best songs on the album (“I Used to Love Him” featuring R&B powerhouse Mary J. Blige) are an arrow pointed towards her former Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean, who she had a romantic relationship with for several years in the ‘90s before it broke up the Grammy-winning band.
The slow, classic break-up R&B song “Ex-Factor” is speculated to be about Hill’s relationship with Jean too. Hill painfully begs her lover to let her go, confused that her lover isn’t measuring up to the words they promised her.
In the chorus, Hill sings:
No matter how I think we grow
You always seem to let me know
It ain’t working (It ain’t working, no), it ain’t working
And when I try to walk away
You’d hurt yourself to make me stay
This is crazy, this is crazy (Oh, this is crazy, uh-huh)
In Hill’s song with iconic ‘90s R&B artist, D’Angelo, “Nothing Even Matters,” the two showcase through buttery falsettos and a stunning vocal performance that love is the answer. The soul-filled, sensual duet glides like an easy love, unburdened by pain — different than the pulsing heartache in the rest of the album.
One of the reasons why the album continues to connect is because of its versatility in subject matter and style. One second, Hill is schooling the listeners on why Black people “always be the ones to settle” in a religiously twinged “Forgive Them Father” or criticizing the counterfeit encrusted shine attached to fame in “Superstar.” In another moment she is pining about love on a remixed, unapologetically hip-hop take on Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
The diversity in Hill’s artistry will forever be a part of hip-hop and pop history. It’s why her music is able to relate to a whole new generation of hip-hop and R&B listeners discovering Hill on TikTok through viral snippets of her songs used for videos across the platform. Not only is the singer popular on TikTok but she is a musical inspiration to many new-age hip-hop artists who are pushing forward the resurgence of hip-hop and R&B in the current music industry. Drake has sampled “Ex-Factor” for his 2018 hit “Nice for What” and so has Cardi B for her song “Be Careful.” Countless other artists like Omarion, Kehlani and Kanye West have sampled Hill too.
For the 25th anniversary of “Miseducation,” the artist who has mostly stayed out of the public eye after her troubled experiences with fame post-album, is coming back to tour the beloved album across the U.S. with opening guest stars, the Fugees. There’s probably no way Hill herself could have ever predicted or fully understood the cultural implications and impact “Miseducation” had on music when she was creating it. But that’s what makes the album so timeless and indestructible. Hill showcased the essence of what it means to be a young, vulnerable Black woman in America on her own terms and for that, she will forever deserve her flowers.