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)