Of Fury and Sorrow: Hip-Hop Classic "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" Two Decades Later
August 3, 2018 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
At their strongest, namely their seminal 1998 release The Score, The Fugees fearlessly explored an astoundingly diverse cross-section of heavy-hitting subjects. This could’ve easily felt bogged down by the last track — after all, it’s not easy to tackle grim urban realities, interpersonal pain, Connie Chung opinions, the Oklahoma bombing, and a whole host of other complex topics on a make-or-break sophomore album.
The Score has been out for more than 20 years now, so we’ve had plenty of time to figure out why it navigated that incredibly competitive and brilliant era so well, while still managing to stand head and shoulders above almost everything else in that decade. One factor that surely contributed heavily to its immense success was how versatile each member proved to be. Sure, Wyclef Jean had the global activist soul, Lauryn Hill had the swirling introspective brilliance, and Pras had his ear closest to the street. But that never stopped the group from eagerly passing the baton and allowing these identities to seamlessly bleed into each other, never assigning any of the members to one-dimensional cubbyholes.
Still, one wouldn’t have been blamed for raising an eyebrow or two at the announcement Hill was releasing a solo album following their disbanding, at least not anybody who understood just how much of The Score’s success depended on an enveloping collaborative dynamic. There wasn’t a single second on that record that came off as passing a mic, like some of the worst moments on Wu-Tang Forever, for example. Instead, it entered our lives as a beautifully unified vision, a project they all built from the ground up, and one that had no class warfare. Pras might not have been as musically talented as the other two, but it never felt like he was less crucial to the album’s success. The Score was synergy at its most perfect, before it became a meaningless corporate retreat buzzword.
So how would a solo Lauryn Hill venture work once it steps beyond a theoretical concept and into physical form?
The previous year we did get to see the first of these individual efforts from Wyclef, the sprawling The Carnival release. Even though it was, for the most part, a pretty great debut, it did represent some of the problems people may have feared when they read those exciting headlines announcing new solos from the Fugees camp.
The Carnival did work surprisingly well given how many wild directions Jean took it, but its shortcomings also typified what we were concerned about. Were all of these solo albums going to foolishly try and absorb all those different elements and personalities that made The Score so great, and attempt to amalgamate them into an interesting but somewhat artificial product? In its most unshackled moments, The Carnival really did come off that way. It was a very promising start for the post-Fugees era, but it’s fair to say we were left with more questions than answers when trying to predict how Hill’s album would work, both comparatively and on its own merits.
The Score does have a loose connection to The Carnival, if you care to do a little digging. Hill did contribute to the recording process, but decided to take a break from touring and subsequent pursuit of her own material once she realized she was pregnant, while also suffering from writer’s block (1). Ironically, the pregnancy reignited a spark, and Hill wrote a huge portion of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill during this time. After helping Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston work out some tracks, she re-entered the studio and started recording her album in earnest.
The resulting record is obviously one of hip-hop’s absolute classics. As I went back and listened to Miseducation, I scribbled down this question: “Is this album driven by fear (of striking out on her own, pressures of a solo album) or liberation?” And now that I think about it, not only is it a combination of both, but this is the primary reason why it succeeds so brilliantly. There is no moment on this record that runs the risk of Hill trying too hard to lean into a persona, neither a previous one presented on a Fugees album or a synthetic new one. There also are no ill-advised attempts to approximate the mathematical equivalent of her best moments on The Score. Hill’s sense of melody is spatial here, not linear.
Only a fool would argue the words here aren’t the centerpiece of this masterpiece, but a wise person would be hip to the fact that the main reason Miseducation continues to rip so hard 20 years later, is the grizzled soundscapes slyly worming around her lyrics of fury (and sorrow). It’s true the production is understated, but it does carry the heavy lifting when Hill runs out of page space. Without the pivotal yet gaunt sonic warmth, Hill’s aimless declarations of God exaltation (most notably “Superstar”, and the closing track “Tell Him”) for example, would just crumble away into wasted words. Miseducation is a spirited dash into the spiritual unknown but ultimately not connected to any of the intimate adventurousness and urgency that’s been the landmark of her best work, dating as far back to Fugees debut album Blunted on Reality.
But of course it’s her lyrics that carved us up so methodically, lyrics that ultimately led to 19 million albums sold and five Grammys. It’s probably not out of line to assert the claim that Hill has a complex mind. Even Pras and Wyclef have went on the record to say she needs psychiatric help. Often we are left to speculate as to the reasons why groups break up, but here it seems like a fairly safe bet that her mental instability was a primary catalyst. I won’t go past face value in regard to those comments made by her former bandmates, but here’s what I take away from that situation as it pertains to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: Throughout the entire album, it does feel like she knows she’s playing with house money. She seems almost dolefully aware this isn’t sustainable for the long haul, so none of this was sowing seeds. Hill was pushing all in. Some might cry “hindsight is 20/20” foul, but really there is no pacing here, no example of her pulling back and not shredding every single inch of scar tissue she can find. It certainly is regretful we don’t have a bigger body of her work to look back on, but Miseducation sort of bled out too much for this to be a realistic outcome.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill isn’t a breakup album… but it's not far off, and therein lies a huge part of its brilliance. At no point does she go full Blood on the Tracks or Sea Change, but her threats to go that route seem real and pronounced. “Lost Ones” is the second track on the album, and as much as I would love to use a fancy synonym, “savage” is probably the correct descriptor here:
Tryna take away a life, is you God, mothafucka?
I don't think so! This a new life up in my stomach
Regardless if I'm your wife, this new life here I'mma love it
I ain't budging I just do this by my mothafuckin' self
See my mama raised me without no mothafuckin' help from a man
But I still don't understand how you could say that
Did you forget all those conversations that we had way back
'Bout your father? And you told me that you hate that nigga
Talking about he a coward and you so glad that you ain't that nigga
'Cause he left your mama when she had you and he ain't shit
And here you go doing the same shit, you ain't shit nigga
Even if you don’t love this album, ragging on her ex and channelling abortion rage-outs with him in the first actual song is about as ballsy as it gets. At this point, the listener knows that Hill either held back with Fugees to some degree (likely for the good of the group’s dynamic), or this is a brand new, shiny version of her that took exactly one song to surpass The Carnival in terms of bravery.
“Lost Ones” is a good example of her bravado and vulnerability meshed into a single track, and that’s likely why it’s most often cited as a highlight of Miseducation. That does prove to be the exception and not the rule here, as most songs don’t attempt such a difficult combination. Another of the most emotionally powerful and personal moments on the record is “To Zion,” an ode to her son. Writing a song about your new son is easy. Writing a song about your difficulty coming to terms with the fact you’re a huge new pop star, and how that will all change with your upcoming baby… again, this is why she was more Nick Cave than Nick Drake.
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
"Look at your career," they said.
"Lauryn, baby, use your head."
But instead I chose to use my heart
More pro-life talk, featured prominently in the first five songs on the album. Name me another huge Grammy award winning album that effortlessly addresses the singer vocalizing being pressured into an abortion within the first five songs on an album — and finding a way to make it radio friendly! Not minimizing Tori Amos sitting at a piano and pouring out a brutal track about rape, but Hill is tackling these devastating topics in a way that still allowed hip-hop heads to nod their head along with the music in the same way they would when they hear a track off Aquemini. It’s a wildly difficult task, especially for a female pop artist.
Again, where do you go from here for a follow up album? Lament her prolonged hiatus all you want, it’s just incredibly hard to properly visualize where Hill could navigate her career after Miseducation. The hiatus is either deserved or necessary; jury is out on that one.
The rest of Miseducation has touching woundedness, countless moments of sheer power, and the relentless sincerity offers no glimpse into possible humour or irony that would provide a merciful reprieve. There is only one parenthesis on a song title here, Hill has no real interest in leaving us with the assumed role of forming our own meanings in the songs. From “Lost Ones” going forward, we are left with no choice but to acquiesce to her words and pleas. The singles are likely as good as you remember them, if you haven’t heard them recently (“Doo Wop,” “Everything Is Everything”), they aren’t even very single-y in relation to what was being dropped around that time in her genre (“Hard-Knock Life”, “Rosa Parks”, a slew of DMX bangers). This isn’t the sort of record that should yield big singles, but Hill found a way to remove herself from the solemn, seductive undertow and give us something we might be able to play at a party. We shouldn’t, but we did.
Even when she’s happy something’s kind of off. Much of the material here represents sentimental piety, which represents the only conflicting facet of Miseducation. Her brutish declarations of faith are off-putting and devoid of context within the grander scope of the album, but it’s also probably safe to say she couldn’t have made this album without her belief in some higher power, given everything we’ve heard about her troubled mental state, astronomical pressures, and tumultuous personal life.
I’m not saying it’s misguided or dopey, but it just seems shoehorned in when it arrives on Miseducation. These statements don’t exactly ruin tracks or even chip away at the album’s aesthetic, but it does seem to be the only aspect of the album that isn’t explored in a meaningful way. They don’t help the album, but one gets the sense that they are integral to the personal odyssey being explored as effectively as they were here.
Most of us have a good idea what happened after Miseducation took over everything: Hill disappeared from the public eye, producing no new music, and only showing up for sporadic, albeit fairly unexceptional live performances, with her poorly received 2002 Unplugged one being the most notable. She went to jail in 2013 for tax evasion, and unfortunately all this AWOL Col. Kurtz imagery had the unfortunate accumulated effect of building on the myth and power of Miseducation, creating a “tortured genius” narrative this record never needed, nor wanted.
This isn’t Roky Erickson or Kool Keith, tapping into their wild instability to create music that seems to arrive from a different dimension. Instead, Hill is more like Bobby Fischer — there is a madness present, but instead of pushing it back with chess, she has her music. It’s impossible to truly know where Hill’s life went after this record, but for the duration of Miseducation we knew exactly where her life was at when we pushed play. That’s truly the most beautiful gift this album brings, both to us, and to her.
Listen to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Full Album)
(1) Furman, Leah; Furman, Elina (1999). Heart of Soul.