In 1998 Lauryn Hill released a cultural landmark – one part enemy of the state, one part love story – which entirely rewrote the curriculum for hip-hop on the brink of a new millennium. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is H.E.R. story – of hip-hop and its truest personification. Lauryn recorded The Miseducation to resurrect a genre, a culture, an artist, and a girl headed towards commodification.
“Lost Ones” comes in right after roll call, on the heels of a visibly absent – but always present – Hill. This is the anthem. This is L. Boogie’s freestyle to introduce her voice and her vantage. Here we hear Lauryn literally taking it to the streets, and revisiting hip-hop’s roots: the battle. She is not battling any other one MC, she is battling them all – and the modern concept of what it means to be an MC. She knocks out her bio in 4 lines or less: “It’s funny how money change a situation, miscommunication leads to complication; my emancipation don’t fit your equation, I was on the humble, you – on every station.” Who knew that ten years from then: she would be the exile that turned on the industry in the face of the corporate stranglehold on creative expression, she would be seen as a misunderstood genius whose public persona would be miscommunicated as “crazy,” whose post-success emancipation didn’t quite fit the conventional mold, and who would inevitably – beyond the crazy – seem quite content with herself working the unplugged circuit while hip-hop superstars dominated the auto-tuned airwaves? She did – here.
One of the most brilliant aspects of The Miseducation is its panoramic appeal. It engages the listener on a number of levels. Hill is as comfortable reciting and rewriting scripture, as she is crooning about love lost and lamented. The beautiful ballad “Ex Factor” opens with a line that resonates with increasing strength as listeners find themselves in a seemingly eternal hiatus from Lauryn herself: “It could all be so simple, but you’d rather make it hard.” The heavy bass, minimal piano, raspy percussion, and electric blue guitar riffs from Carlos Santana stride along steadily beneath Hill’s dark mourning, as the listener can’t help but feel the same confusion and distress.
Lauryn is a child of the 70s, just like hip-hop itself. She is a product of the culture as much as she is a producer, recording music that will be the foundation of hip-hop’s future social estate. She understands that she is not inheriting the world from her parents, so much as she is borrowing it from her children. “To Zion” underscores one of The Miseducation’s most brilliant aspects, its timelessness and permeability. “Zion” is Lauryn’s promise, her will to the next breed. The man child to which she is giving birth was as much her son, as it was the future of the movement. This album was her child, as an artist this was her identity and face to the world. “Now let me pray to keep you from, the perils that will surely come. See life for you my prince has just begun, and I thank you for choosing me to come through unto life to be a beautiful reflection of his grace.” The fervor with which Lauryn protects her son is the same passion and allegiance to the truest form of expression and identity for her culture – hip-hop. Her rumored quote “I would rather have my son starve than have a white person buy my album,” is as relevant to her son Zion as it is to her music – she would rather have her own album die rather than have the mainstream commodify her art… and we wonder why she hasn’t “resurfaced” yet…
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” was the mainstream’s lifeblood. It was a beyond apropos title, as the track was sheer sonic Doo Wop, and a cultural zeitgeist that could only be described as “That Thing” – the kind of thing that gets so big and so integral it becomes part of the social DNA. “Doo Wop” was Hill’s footprint on the general consciousness and the era. It was fun, but foreshadowing. It was catchy, but coherent and conscious. It got people to think without thinking, it made poets out of pop tarts. It was the song that turned karaoke bars into classrooms “Let’s not pretend: they wanna pack pistol by they waist men, Crystal by the case men, still in they mother’s basement. The pretty face men, claiming that they did a bid men; need to take care of their three and four kids then. They facing a court case when the child support’s late. Money taking, heart breaking now you wonder why women hate men?” Just as people sing about tip drills just because “the beat sounds good,” they can sing about gender stratification and stereotypes because, well, “the beat sounds good.”
What Lauryn Hill did with The Miseducation was groundbreaking – literally. She rewrote the hip-hop curriculum on the brink of the new millennium. She crafted 16 tracks of perfection – from content, to production, to structure, sentiment, storytelling, and lyricism. This was going to be the harbinger of the next decade in sound. Instead we saw the fatal adoption – and those 16 tracks were like 16 bars of steel in the prison of mainstream appeal. If The Miseducation was Hill’s artistic child, the mainstream adoption aborted the legacy. Once The Miseducation broke past underground status it became Pop. Hip-hop was then overshadowed by rap, and the culture was blinded by the ice. The “99/2000” saw the rise of all things “bling” and the culture was not just commodified, but became a commodity itself. Ringtone rap may not sound good, but it sells incredibly well. Somewhere in oblivion – or perhaps splendid isolation – Lauryn Hill remains the ever-insane genius.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill still remains required listening for, well, the world. It is still the Gospel According to Lauryn. Hill’s mainstream acceptance is what she abhors the most, to be part of a system that she aims to disarm; her miseducation became standard curriculum for the system to which she felt she was a victim – and we wonder why she is so distant. That said, the lost one found stability and serenity in assumed insanity – because we call her crazy, she’s fine. Lauryn is deemed crazy in a world where oil spills and hurricanes are rationalized. She fell off a music scene dominated by pop baby, baby, baby ohs who wake up feeling like Diddy. She is seen as backwards, in a world currently celebrating Holland’s return to prestige in South Africa with not even a moment of “where have I seen this before… something about Boers?” All things being equal, I’d say she got the better deal.
Miss Education is scheduled to preside over Governor’s Island and rock the bells once more. 12 years later we look back on an album that became an anthem, and was the miseducation that led to a cultural army of misunderstood mavens, college droupouts, and late registrants. Lauryn’s Gospel is the G.O.O.D. word, a decade and some change later it stands in somehow greater significance than it did at its debut. It solidifies Hill’s undeniable iconic status, and the reality that it’s always the prophets that become the pariahs, for telling future truths at a time when they are still present lies. “You know it’s hot, don’t forget what you got… looking back,” every ghetto and every city can attest: unforgettable.