In a time of sub-genres, genre crossovers and YouTube stars, we forget there once was a simpler time: A time when rappers just rapped, and singers just sung.
As a teen growing up in New York during the mid-late ’80s, Ms Lauryn Hill lived through the first wave of female emancipation in hip-hop. Shattering the normative expectations of what a female should be like, avant-gardists such as Roxanne Shanté, collective Salt-n-Pepa and Queen Latifah were rhyming their blunted out realities, laying their claims for those willing to listen, declaring they should and that they could have equal footing as their male counterparts.
Building on the movement’s momentum, a young Ms Hill stands out the ranks. Lauryn Hill was one of the first singers to add rap to her repertoire, but, regardless of the cadence, she became one of the very few living artists that account with a dazing amount of accolades for a relatively short, yet intense and public artistic career.
The mid-to-late nineties saw a lot of experimentation in music production. Newly available digital software, such as Pro Tools, allowed for music to be accurately synthesised for the very first time in its creation. Certain recording textures that added character to a single were now being sanitised, replaced by pitch-perfect, sub-optimal recorded tracks, and Hill wasn’t catching her vibe on that.
“I wanna hear that thickness of sound. You can’t get that from a computer, because a computer’s too perfect. But that human element, that’s what makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I love that.” – she stated during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine
At the time, still hot off the fumes of the Fugee’s global success there was pressure from the record label and public alike to write the group’s third studio album. As opposed to relinquishing her vision Ms Hill seized the opportunity to innovate, and to do so, Lauryn thought abstract and big.
Sonically, she wanted to write songs that would bring the reggae’s relaxed attitude, hip-hop’s punch and the live instrumentation of classic soul music whirled into one. To do so, she cast some of the era’s biggest stars – Carlos Santana and Mary J. Blige – but also gave way for some lesser known faces to shine. The Miseducation accounts for one of the very first recordings of a young John Stevens (more commonly known as John Legend, yep).
Fresh from Tupac and Biggie’s public assassinations in 1996 and 1997 respectively, Miseducation was not only unique for its content but also how it stood apart in the musical landscape. Thematically, it offered refuge from all the violence, pain and anger brought to us during Gangsta rap’s prime. She lets the words breathe, allowing the listener to inject their own experiences, and so the songs become theirs.
Love is the lifeblood of the album. What contributes to Miseducation being so powerful are the interwoven values Hill holds dear and are embedded in her writing. From heartbreak in ‘Ex-Factor’ to lust in ‘Doo Wop’ and loss in ‘When It Hurts So Bad’, Hill connects her own experiences to the listeners with her accessible narrative.
I know what we’ve got to do ,
You let go, and I’ll let go too ,
Cause no one’s hurt me more than you,
And no one ever will.
The stark nakedness of her words combined with clever wordplay removes the pressure of the ego. Connecting us all into this dense mass of disparate thoughts, the cathartic experience that true love is, and the lessons one can only truly learn by the loss of it.
in When It Hurts So Bad:
What you need ironically
Will turn out what you want to be
If you just let it.
in Doo Wop:
It’s silly when girls sell their souls because it’s in,
Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans ,
Fake nails done by Koreans, Come again.
In several tracks, she carefully takes the opportunity to lift the veil to the perilous game of the industry, the consequences of her success, and the conflict inflicted in her mind as a young woman, trying to forge a solo career.
Now tell me your philosophy
On exactly what an artist should be
Should they be someone with prosperity
And no concept of reality?
There was substance to what was being said too. The Miseducation was written mostly during her pregnancy of her firstborn child, Zion, it sees Lauryn striding into the public eye on a different note, in ways that were inconvenient for the time.
in Everything is Everything:
You can’t match this rapper slash actress
More powerful than two Cleopatras
Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti
MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti
My rhymes is heavy like the mind of sister Betty
L-Boogie spars with stars and constellations.
The spiritual and religious references are not hard to find. ‘To Zion’ is named after her first son, and directly references Christianity and God. Further references can be found in ‘Forgive Them Father’ and ‘Tell Him’, both connected strongly to the book of Matthew. It was unusual at this time for religion to be connected like this in rap music, although this was not a typical rap album.
in To Zion:
But then an angel came one day / Told me to kneel down and pray.
A beautiful reflection of His grace.
Forgive Them Father:
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive.
Now I may have faith to make mountains fall.
No project should be taken out of context. It was groundbreaking for Hill to win five Grammy’s in 1999, with a total of ten nominations. In 1998, Billboard Hot 100 number ones had already gone to Savage Garden, and Will Smith, as well as RnB acts such as Usher and Brandy & Monica. Considering how many hip-hop artists have come, gone and stuck around since the 1980s, this seems very late. But then again, Cardi B only just became the first female rapper with two Billboard Hot 100 number ones in July, it was only in January of this year that hip-hop surpassed rock as the most popular music genre in the world.
It’s hard to believe this could be the same for an artist who releases an album today, even if it was lauded as highly as Miseducation. Our disposable music culture doesn’t allow for this type of longevity; fans are not used to waiting for music and there are very few artists that can survive the silence. Comparatively, Hill has put the world through an audio desert and manages to sell-out arenas.
Though…… some, “Change did come, eventually.”
For our generation, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an album that has always been there. Through the depths to highs of our teens, to our early adulthood, it’s core values remain unhinged from the passage of time, growing side-by-side with us.
From up-and-coming artists from all corners of the world, conscious rappers, such as Kendrick and Cole, neo-soul songstresses such as NAO and IAMDDBB, to arena selling artists such as Beyonce, Cardi and Drake. With the commodities of the 21st century, all we need is a three-second Google search to confirm how deep and vast the influence of these 80 minutes have affected our collective consciousness.
The fact that Hill is touring the world from one solo studio album is testament to her legacy alone, regardless of the countless samples and references from artists since. She changed the face of RnB, hip-hop and neo-soul in one project, and although there are only so many times an artist can make such seismic shifts, it’s hard to see who could achieve this next.
Luckily, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is as timeless as ever.