On the timeless nature of Lauryn Hill’s classic debut
As a young co-ed in the throes of self-discovery in the late nineties, everything was fair game, and my usual inclination towards the crunchy sound and angst of early alternative music was no exception to the challenge. My horizons were broadened by The Score, a unique blend of reggae, rap, and R&B music from hip-hop trio The Fugees; while I could never purport to understand the life experiences which inspired The Score, I was drawn in by its sound and innovation. Saddened by The Fugees’ quick demise, I was curious when Lauryn Hill, the mastermind behind The Fugees’ lyrical content, released her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in August 1998.
To say that this album changed me might be the understatement of the century. To hear this kind of poetry, especially from a female perspective, was so new to me. Hill was breaking new ground in her genre. Unlike her contemporaries, she wasn’t using blatant sexuality to gain attention, she wasn’t picking fights with other rappers, and she didn’t seem to be obsessed with material things—she refused to be objectified, and instead, transcended the noise with her intelligence, her honest lyricism, and her truth. With her rhymes, as well as her soulful vocals, she relayed not only heartbreak and loss, but the resilience that springs from hope. And, while I’ve never lived the life or endured the trials of the African-American woman, her music crossed cultural lines; every song imparted a kernel of truth that felt like it was intended just for me. From songs about taking control of her own destiny and her own body in choosing to have her first child regardless of repercussions it would have on her burgeoning career (against the advice of many), to unabashedly touting her own skills as an artist, feminine strength and true beauty radiate from every track. While she was coming to terms with her own womanhood, she encouraged us to strive for more, to realize our own potential, and to engage with our emotions. It was a manifesto and declaration of freedom, and it spoke to me.
Miseducation was widely lauded, earning countless rave reviews and accolades from critics and the industry itself; Hill became the first woman to earn ten Grammy nominations in a single year, and the first woman to win five Grammy Awards in one night. Shortly thereafter, however, her refusal to conform to others’ ideas about her career trajectory, legal battles, and the crushing pressure of fame caused her to withdraw from the public eye. Further exacerbated by the mostly negative reviews of her 2002 MTV Unplugged session and her tendency to make fan-alienating inflammatory remarks onstage, Hill went into exile.
Aside from the occasional movie soundtrack contribution in the early 00’s and teases about the impending emergence of new music, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill remains her only released body of original work. Over the years, she resurfaced to perform and tour sporadically—though not without controversy. Complaints abound that she’s rearranged her songs and made them virtually unrecognizable. Famously late for performances—if she shows up at all—she has continued to frustrate fans with her unpredictable antics. In 2016, after disappointing concertgoers in Atlanta by appearing onstage two hours late and performing for only 40 minutes, Hill told fans in a Facebook post:
“I don’t show up late to shows because I don’t care…the challenge is aligning my energy with the time, taking something that isn’t easily classified or contained, and trying to make it available for others. Because I care so deeply about the artistic process,” she continues, “I scrutinize, have perfectionist tendencies, and want space made for spontaneity, which is not an easy process, with the many moving parts on the road…our challenge is to figure out the best way to accommodate the vitality, spontaneity, and spirit that make the performances worthwhile and special to begin with, while also making that experience available and accessible to others. If I didn’t love and respect the art, I wouldn’t be doing this. The audience and I should have that in common.”
A cursory glance at the post’s comments reveal that some fans aren’t buying it; even so, many continue to take the risk and buy tickets, just to have the chance to bear witness to her remarkable talent. Now, twenty years later and still riding the wave of the record’s timeless sound and message, Hill has recently embarked on a “Miseducation” anniversary tour to celebrate. As of the end of July, she has already cancelled seven shows and postponed three.
And on a recent appearance on the Houston radio station 97.9-FM The Box, jazz pianist Robert Glasper called her out on her treatment of the musicians she hires to go on tour with her.
Yet, in spite of it all, the music endures, and so does Hill’s notoriety. Countless modern music-makers cite her as a major influence, reinforcing that what she did in the 90s is just as relevant today. As a society, we still struggle with race issues, poverty, and gender inequality; as humanity, we continue to endure the lasting effects of love and heartbreak, joy and pain, and she wasn’t afraid to talk about it. We don’t have to agree with Lauryn Hill’s politics or personal philosophy to acknowledge that she did something important, that she impacted a generation, and that her music has stood, and will continue to stand the test of time.