The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill transcended gender qualifiers, genre and time
Original release date: 25 August 1998
Label: Ruffhouse / Columbia
“This is crazy because this is hip-hop,” a stunned Lauryn Hill announced as she accepted her Album of the Year trophy at the 1999 Grammy Awards. Her victory marked the first time any rap album won the night’s top honours; the first time a woman had earned five awards in a single ceremony. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was that kind of album: historic.
In 1998, hip-hop was still scratching its way into mainstream acceptance and commercial viability, accelerated by the gaudy-glam style of P Diddy’s Bad Boy label. It was a year that yielded seminal albums like Jay Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, Juvenile’s 400 Degreez and OutKast’s Aquemini. But it took a certain amount of fortitude to make The Miseducation because there were no guarantees – a woman in rap begins with the deck stacked, and nothing said this diaristic style of writing would translate to a mass audience that tended to crave the shiny and the superficial.
The album’s lyricism was razor-sharp, the singing soul-churning, the instrumentation warm and enveloping. As we got older, we came to understand the holiness of Ms. Hill’s purge – an everywoman bringing the blues to the hip-hop era. The way she could lick her wounds and praise love in the same breath or wield her tongue as a dagger and an elixir was stunning. And in setting the most intimate details of her life to music, she found an appeal that transcended gender qualifiers, genre and time itself.
The lyrical screeds Lost Ones and Doo Wop (That Thing) handed listeners game in the form of life lessons while confirming Ms. Hill as one of the greatest rappers to ever hold a microphone. Slow burners like Ex-Factor and When it Hurts So Bad portrayed heartache with textures that were recognisable to anyone who’s ever known what it is to feel destroyed by the person they desire. Her ode to motherhood, ushered in by Carlos Santana’s honeyed Spanish guitar, materialised on the devastatingly gorgeous song To Zion. The song revealed how outsiders suggested she terminate her pregnancy and choose her career before her son. It remains a monument to her resistance, and to the still revolutionary decision to be a mother in the midst of great professional success.
In spinning this intricate web of her life, Ms. Hill channelled the lifeblood of black political figures: the album’s title, for example, can either be a nod to the autobiography The Education of Sonny Carson or to W.E.B. Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro, or both. The great writer Amiri Baraka’s son Ras leads the interludes and part of the album was recorded in Bob Marley’s legendary studio Tuff Gong.
The album’s title track doubles as its powerful anchor. The resolution of the album’s narrative arc, it’s also one of her most powerful vocal performances. Within it, she offers the perfect closing affirmation: “But deep in my heart, the answer it was in me,” she sings. “And I made up my mind to define my own destiny.”
“She was everything to everyone in a way that only a black woman could be”
In the wake of the album’s success, Ms. Hill’s own lyrics seemed to turn on her. She learned just how much money really does change the situation – how quick the same people who once called her “genius” were to call her “crazy” when she failed to behave in the manner they expected. But she’d built a career around the refusal to honour any truth but her own.
Lauryn Hill was grace and strength rolled up into one: teacher and student; vulnerable and protector. She was everything to everyone in a way that only a black woman could be. She knew well the euphoria of love, the torment of heartbreak and the tyranny of an oppressive industry and world and she mined each of those things for beauty. It was, in many ways, her undoing. But for 80 minutes on The Miseducation, it was also her greatest triumph.