Music: The righteous sister

Lauryn Hill is stealing hip hop back from the menace of gangsta. How? By steeping herself in the history of black female divas. It's not just about rap; it's a battle for the soul.

Lauryn Hill has a big mouth, and it sits in the middle of her tiny face as though God, in a moment of more-than-divine inspiration, had stuck the fabulous lips of Millie Jackson on the petite features of a young Diana Ross.

Which is apposite, really, because when Hill opens the mouth to rap or sing, the tough alto voice that issues forth is a lot closer to the husky come-on of Jackson - or the imploring warmth of Gladys Knight - than it is to the sugary purr of the former Supreme. In addition, there's a strident feistiness to Hill's tone that suggests she may just be the Angela Davis of hip hop - a sweet black angel in a Chevy Suburban.

A lot of words have poured out of Hill's mouth in the past six months, both in song and on the printed page. The 23-year-old mother of two from South Orange, New Jersey, has a lot to say, and ain't afraid to say it. "Every man want to act like he's exempt/ When him need to get down on his knees and repent," she admonishes on the startling "Lost Ones", first song proper on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "Music is supposed to inspire/ How come we ain't getting no higher?" she demands to know on "Superstar". Even on the delectable "Doo Wop (That Thing)", Hill finger- wags the warning "that was the sin that did Jezebel in/ Who you gon' tell when the repercussions spin?" Easy, sister!

Amid the mass prostration that's greeted Hill's runaway megahit of an album - The Miseducation sold more copies in America in its first week than any previous album by a female artist, and is up for no less than eight Grammy awards - some dissenters have accused the girl of being preachy. Hill would probably say there was a need for preachiness in late- Nineties America: not the preachiness of the Baptist matrons who've been trying to gag hip hop for 10 years, but the rhetoric of artists who've had enough of the callous cynicism and dehumanising materialism of black pop-culture in the post-soul era. Hill, in a nutshell, is trying to lead hip hop and R&B back to the soul music she devoured after stumbling as a little girl on a dusty stash of 45s in her mother's basement.

"Black music right now is like this whole Star Wars battle," ?uestlove of Philly hip hop band The Roots told Rolling Stone. "There are very few people on the side of art who are goin' up against the Death Star. D'Angelo is Luke Skywalker. Prince, Stevie, James, Marvin and George are our Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And, most definitely, Lauryn is Princess Leia."

Nor is it just about "soul" music. On The Miseducation, Hill rustles up soul, gospel, jazz - above all, the righteous riddims of roots reggae. If there's an unseen presence behind the album, it's that of Robert Nesta Marley, whose hallowed Tuff Gong studio was the music's seedbed and whose son Rohan is the father of Hill's babies. From the rippling snare rolls and I-Threes choruses of "When It Hurts So Bad" to the "Concrete Jungle" homage that is "Forgive Them Father", The Miseducation is rooted in Marley's militant spirituality.

Marley, of course, was just as central to The Score, the brilliant and hugely successful 1996 album by The Fugees, the hip hop trio in which Hill first made her musical mark. Aside from its heavenly version of "No Woman, No Cry", The Score was strewn with reggae references and shot through with a loose Caribbean-feel that sharply distinguished it from its hardcore- by-numbers predecessor, Blunted By Reality. The Score, too, was where the world heard Hill soaring her way through Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song", a rap-soul hybrid that lit up America and blew the cobwebs from a stagnant, gangsta-dominated scene.

Hill has hinted that her fellow Fugees were unhappy about her recording solo - despite having released solo albums of their own. (On "Lost Ones", a bracingly vengeful song widely presumed to be about Fugees mainman, Wyclef Jean, Hill sneers that "my emancipation don't fit your equation".) If true, it says a lot about the barriers that solo female hip hop artists are up against - and that Hill, with The Miseducation, has knocked so emphatically to the ground.

Hill's role in The Fugees was radical enough: in hip hop's rigidly male milieu, no woman had ever shared equal billing with men in a group. The Peter, Paul and Mary of the Keepin' It Real school, The Fugees pushed Hill's femaleness to the foreground, not just in terms of her stunning looks but in terms of a sensibility which had long struggled to be heard in hip hop. Although fairer-sex MCs such as MC Lyte and Yo Yo had fought for their meagre slice of the turf ever since 14-year-old Roxanne Shante let loose with 1985's "Roxanne's Revenge", hip hop's female successes - Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah - were, by 1996, laughably outnumbered by a million -and-one interchangeable male acts. No wonder most young black females plumped for R&B.

What makes The Miseducation such a seminal event is that it transcends the whole issue of whether women can cut it with male rappers: Hill has picked up where The Score left off and made an album whose aim is simply to shake black America awake. In a climate dominated by sulky vixens (Monica, Brandy) and vicious ballbusters (L'il Kim, Foxy Brown), Hill rises up like Delacroix's Liberty, a tiny-princess-turned-earth-mama who wants to lead her brothers and sisters into the next millennium. "There's a battle for the souls of black folk, and just folks in general," she told Rolling Stone last month. "The music has a lot to do with that."

At the risk of hubris, Hill is presenting herself as a kind of alternative diva - what the writer Sheri Parks has termed a "lion mother of the American soul". Moreover, she is fully aware of the women who went before her. She knows about empress Bessie Smith and matriarch Ma Rainey. She's heard the gospel mothers, the Mahalia Jacksons and Sallie Martins - the piercing sorrow of "I Used To Love Him" comes direct and unfiltered from the church. A sometime Columbia University major who calls her album "my thesis/ Well-written topic/ Broken down into pieces", Hill can tell you about Nina Simone singing "Mississippi Goddam", and about Aretha singing "Young, Gifted, and Black". She's watched Janet Jackson take "Control" and Erykah Badu exhume Billie Holiday.

But Hill has also seen Latifah, the "Queen of Royal Badness", throw hip hop on the back burner and take up residence on the TV sitcom Living Single. She's seen MC Lyte take five years to score a gold record; seen Yo Yo, for all her dissing of Ice Cube on "It's A Man's World", fade from the scene. She's seen Me'Shell Ndegecello ignored by black radio because her music eludes its straitjacket categories.

If The Miseducation is about anything, it's the need for female soul power in an ever-more desensitised male music-culture. As Hill told Spin last year: "I was thinking that hip hop and R&B, as we now know them, aren't as personal and intimate as the music I want to make - a lot of it is very braggadocious and cool." The joy of The Miseducation lies both in its musicality and in its willingness to explore subjects ignored by the gunfire junkies of male hip hop. ("Every Ghetto, Every City", with its vivid sketches of Hill's New Jersey childhood, is a hip hop "I Wish".) Hill says she wanted to "write songs that lyrically move me and have the integrity of reggae and the knock of hip hop and the instrumentation of classic soul", and to give those songs "a sound that's raw". She's succeeded.

In the heightened, menacing atmosphere in which hip hop music is made these days, Hill has taken a new road. She's become the "Every Woman" that Chaka Khan - another vocal influence, one suspects - sang about in 1978. The crucial missing link between L'il Kim and Lilith Fair, she's a made a manifesto of an album that's already made millions of women - black, white, red, yellow - sit up and pay attention. It could just turn out to be the black Jagged Little Pill.

"Rock Hard like granite or steel," Hill raps on "Final Hour". "People feel Lauryn Hill from New-Ark to Israel/ And this is real..." Ain't nothing but the truth, though she do say so herself.

Lauryn Hill plays the Brixton Academy, London, tonight (0171-771 2000)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition