I first discovered the 1998 megahit The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill upon starting high school. It was a personally turbulent time in which I reevaluated my religious beliefs and sought to reinvent my spiritual, political, and sexual identities. So the album seemed appropriate salve for my angst: through The Miseducation, Lauryn Hill explored and exposed the wounds of personal struggle — in the music industry, in love, and in her faith.
Before its release, the twenty-three year old had already achieved significant success as frontwoman “L. Boogie” in the Fugees with MCs Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel (not to mention a handful of acting gigs). After an overachieving high school career, she studied sporadically at Columbia University. Understandably, however, she dropped out to focus on music when the Fugees’ The Score became a sensation. Then, at the cusp of stardom, Jean, whom she had been romantically involved with, allegedly turned on her, both professionally and personally. He was generally unsupportive of a solo project for Hill (though he released his own, The Carnival, in the summer of 1997), and became engaged to another woman. As the group began to fall apart, Hill met Rohan Marley, son of Bob Marley, and became pregnant with his child. When the Fugees had officially disbanded, the expectant mother withdrew to her attic and began to write, Bible at the ready. After giving birth in the summer of ‘97, Hill left for Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica to seclude herself from deleterious personal and artistic influences. In this spiritual shelter, she laid down her own kind of sacred text. The album abounds with Biblical imagery and allusion, from the Virgin Mary metaphor of “To Zion,” to the righteous indignation of “Forgive Them Father,” and, most extensively, in the sweet guitar serenade to Jesus, “Tell Him.” But while her project may have been a sermon, it was no obsessive puritan mission or repentant abdication; its focus was human, and its heaven and hell took place on earth.
The Miseducation draws upon the title and thesis of black historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson’s “The Miseducation of the Negro.” Woodson argued that black Americans are taught to embrace their inferiority, necessitating self-education as a prerequisite for liberation. That this state-of-mind haunts Hill is most evident in a recorded classroom conversation in which children from Hill’s neighborhood are asked to relate “personal definitions” of love. Their musings on a love that isn’t “phony” might initially seem winding, or naive. But couched in the heartbreaking realization that adults all too often lose such innocent perspectives and end up in destructive relationships, their advice becomes something to take seriously. The conversation weaves between songs, providing moments of meditation. But it’s Hill’s lecture that we want to hear, and each song is a lesson learned. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was both the lead single and ideological centerpiece of the album. It combines playful, Supremes-reminiscent rhythms and harmonies with a polemical warning against the dangerous attractions of a materialistic, image-obsessed society. All the while, Hill avoids sanctimony, saying, “Don’t think I haven’t been through the same predicament.”
She extends this admission of personal fault in a duet with Mary J. Blige entitled “I Used to Love Him,” a song about Hill’s recovery from Wyclef Jean. Despite the title, the emphasis is clearly on the “but now I don’t” part. The two powerhouses riff over a dark choral dirge, sending a clear feminist message (intentionally or not) with such lamentations as “gave up my power, ceased being queen” and revelations as “life is much more than being some foolish man’s wife.” Indeed, Hill’s identity as a woman and a mother is evident throughout. “To Zion” is a battle cry, combining Santana’s weeping guitar with a military drumroll and chanting gospel choir. Lyrically, it deals with Hill’s refusal to compromise in the face of those who think they know what’s best for her. That is to say, with her decision to keep her baby boy, Zion, while fighting for this artistic breakthrough (which indeed it became). Hill is also uncompromising in her dual role as prodigious singer and rapper. In “Lost Ones,” a hypnotic call-and-response piece, and “Final Hour,” a breathtaking rap-screed, she takes aim at the trifling priorities of her rapper contemporaries.
With all of its condemnation, The Miseducation might seem most suitable for a post-breakup belt-your-face-off session. But it also provides moments of mesmerizing beauty and optimism. “Nothing Even Matters,” featuring D’Angelo, is, simply put, sexy — in a classic Marvin Gaye/George Benson kind of way. It imagines the kind of enduring, reciprocal love that (as the classroom conversation reminds us) is the object of every child’s yearning. “Every Ghetto, Every City” is pure childhood nostalgia, appropriately set to a synthesized Stevie Wonder groove. “Everything is everything,” with a young John Legend at the piano, refocuses the album by telling the listener to “hear this mixture/where hip hop meets scripture/develop a negative into a positive picture.” A classical piano run welcomes the final and title track, a powerful soliloquy in which Hill brings together all of her struggle and bursts it by the assurance of a self-defined destiny. With that, the mournful violins fade, and like two free-flying birds, the piano and synthesizer dance around each other in joyful ascent, signaling the end of strife and the birth of freedom.
But strife has not come to an end just yet for “Ms. Lauryn Hill”, which is what she goes by these days.
“The Miseducation” was a massive commercial and critical success: it was the first hip-hop album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Hill was the first woman to be nominated for ten Grammys and win five in a single year. However, shortly after, New Ark, a production and musical team that she collaborated with on the album, sued Hill for improper accreditation. Regardless of the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of this claim, the suit was a breaking point for Hill, whose career had already been defined by strife-torn collaboration. She canceled a slew of future projects and began a militant Bible study regimen. For more than a decade, her music became sporadic and what she did produce seemed cryptic and increasingly nihilistic. However, after a messy 2012 court battle over tax evasion that ended with a three-month stint in prison, Ms. Hill has released her first official singles in over a decade (“Neurotic Society” and “Consumerism”) and is touring under strict court-mandated conditions.
When I caught wind of this, I was just about ready to pawn my mother’s jewelry for a ticket — anything to see this resurrection in the flesh. However, listening to these singles was admittedly a disappointment. And if you’re a Lauryn Hill fan, chances are you felt the same. You probably Googled “Lauryn Hill live” only to find videos of an angry, unfamiliar figure chastising her audience and band for their disapproval of her showing up three hours late. Her new music has a kind of fatalistic, doomsday edge. Both “Neurotic Society” and “Consumerism” are essentially rapid-fire lists of everything that’s wrong with society according to Ms. Hill, including “girl men,” “drag queens,” “skepticism”, “Catholicism” and “Darwinism.” Perhaps I’m just missing the big picture, but it seems that Ms. Hill wants to replace the evils of capitalist humanism with the evils of dogmatic theocracy.
I have no idea how to respond really: I know she struggles and I have no right to condemn, but for selfish reasons, I also wish I could give her a piece of my mind. Maybe mention the fact that the Bible, in regards to women, calls for an “ism” of its own — quietism. Tell her that God doesn’t live in the latest iteration and interpretation of scripture. Tell her that she should take with a grain of salt any book that was assembled according to the politics of the old Catholic church, the antecedent of the one she mistrusts today. God lives in art, he lives in the purity of love, he lives in the fight to struggle and survive, against even the worst of odds. The Miseducation wasn’t God’s gift to Lauryn. It was Lauryn’s portrait of God.
In the end though, Lauryn Hill has proved that only she can define herself. Maybe she’ll lead a Christian hip-hop crusade and I’ll be caught up in the depraved pagan horde, or maybe she’ll make art the object of her passion once again, and I’ll be listening. Time can only tell. Until then, I’ll keep throwing it back to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.