The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is 20 – and it's still one of the best albums of all time

On its anniversary, we pay tribute to Lauryn Hill's groundbreaking neo-soul masterpiece 

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Friday 24 August 2018 07:00 BST
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Lauryn Hill accepts an award at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards
Lauryn Hill accepts an award at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards

Few albums have stood the test of time like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: a record so sonically perfect that it has propped up the career of its eponymous singer for 20 years.

Gifting the world ageless, raw anthems, and endearing skits about life, love and spirituality, The Miseducation spoke with an honesty that only a select few in mainstream R&B could indulge in at the time.

In a 1999 interview with The Guardian, Hill said the record embodied the notion that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. Yes, it dealt with heartbreak and love, but really, it “was meant to discuss those life lessons… those things that you don’t get in any text book, things that we go through that force us to mature”.

From the moving, slow intensity of “Ex-Factor” (“You said you’d die for me, give to me, give to me, why won’t you live for me?”) to the (admittedly, respectability-heavy) lessons of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (“Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans, fake nails done by Koreans”), it was – in the 1990s – ahead of its time. So far ahead, that Ms Hill, as she now refers to herself, is still touring almost exclusively off the back of it.

One and only: Hill has yet to record a follow-up to her 1998 debut (Getty)

It has not been an easy path for Hill. One odd rumour surrounding the album on its release was that Hill did not want her music to be purchased by white people (a falsehood later attributed to a caller on The Howard Stern Show). The notion that she, with her dreadlocks, Fugees background and distaste for fame, secretly hated white people, was a satisfactory narrative for people who could not reckon with her success. That no one had seen or heard her say it did not matter. Hill and her neo-soul ilk created music that was not only distinctly black in sound, but also in social commentary, and that was enough of a threat in itself.

These days, Hill is, sadly, almost as well known for her tardiness and financial issues as she is for her first and only solo record. Having cemented her superstar status with a US No 1 album, she soon retreated from the public eye, accompanied by a swirl of rumours. Her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album – a stripped-back, and at times, rambling, but no less beautiful project teeming with observations about the perils of fame – only increased the whispers.

After a brief Fugees reunion in 2005, Hill ramped up her touring in the wake of a three-month prison sentence for tax evasion in 2013. Hill was back: albeit with frenzied live performances of the classics. And sometimes, there was no performance at all. In 2016 after showing up hours late for a concert in Atlanta and only performing for 40 minutes (a regular occurrence), Hill attributed her lateness to her issues with “aligning her energy with the time”. Disputes over crediting producers, writers and musicians have also plagued the star for some time, with Grammy-nominated pianist Robert Glasper recently suggesting that she had less input into her recorded work than people realised.

That aside, The Miseducation has had a rebirth of sorts this year. “Ex-Factor” was sampled twice – in Cardi B’s “Be Careful” and Drake’s hit feminist-lite anthem “Nice For What” – renewing conversations about the lasting legacy of the 1998 album.

In an interview with Rolling Stone on the 10th anniversary of the album, Hill spoke of her desire prior to its release, to “write songs that lyrically move” her. She wanted us to be “able to hear the scratch in the vocals”, and the “thickness of sound”, as well as creating something with “human element” strong enough to make the hair on the back of her neck stand up. And she did.

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There’s a reason that this album refuses to fade into the background. So groundbreaking was it, with its penchant for infusing social commentary with R&B, soul and hip-hop beats, that you could argue that Lauryn’s The Miseducation, like Erykah Badu’s Baduizm the previous year, was one of a small selection of albums responsible for changing the face of soul and R&B as we know it.

Her voice, just as powerful as it was sweet, soared on every track on the album. “Nothing Even Matters”, a timeless, honey-dipped duet with D’Angelo, could have easily faded into the background had it been sung by someone else. Miss Hill’s vocals, pained yet understated, transformed it into something much more.

There are standouts from the album that still excite me as if I were hearing them for the first time. “To Zion”, a guitar-heavy anthem (played by Carlos Santana) dedicated to Hill’s first born son, comes to mind. It was rare to hear young women in R&B and hip hop openly discussing the challenges of juggling celebrity and motherhood, let alone celebrating parenthood itself. And you can hear the love on the track. So much so, that when Jayson Jackson, Hill’s former manager, first heard her sing a verse from it, he cried.

“Unsure of what the balance held, I touched my belly overwhelmed”, she sang in the opening line of "To Zion", drawing the listener in with each swelling verse. Speaking of the song in the aforementioned Guardian interview, Hill said: “I had always made decisions for other people, making everybody else happy, and once I had Zion that was really the first decision that was unpopular for me.

“It was one that was based on my happiness and not what other people wanted for me or for themselves. And it was the best decision that I could have ever made, because I’m the happiest and healthiest that I have ever been. It also revealed to me which relationships were right, which ones were sincere, and which ones were based on exploiting and hurting me. It was a godsend all the way round – 360 degrees of that whole situation were nothing but a blessing. And I’m so happy that I made the choice that I did.”

Relistening to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill in its entirety for the first time in years, memories of sunny Saturday mornings – the days in which my parents would blast the album, along with other neo-soul contemporaries – came flooding back. I grew up with this album. But last weekend, with the volume on headphones turned up to the max, I was a child again, struggling to keep up with cleanness of Hill’s vocals as I sang along, rapping to lyrics I didn’t quite understand all those years before. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is still a masterpiece – and that’s something that will never change.

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