Looking back at Lauryn Hill's classic album 17 years later.
On August 25, 1998 Lauryn Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The album was a blend of the Fugee sound that propelled her into the spotlight a couple years prior. With the solo record, it was all eyes on Lauryn, and she got very personal with that spotlight.
Right around this time is the same time Hill was pregnant with Rohan Marley's (Bob Marley's son). The recording process started in New York before switching over to Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, where plenty of Marley's family were on site. Hill was a young star of the R&B and hip hop worlds, a recent member of the Bob Marley family tree, and ready to release her debut solo album.
The current landscape of urban music was priming itself for the neo-soul boom, and ultimately that's what this record would contribute too. It isn't hip hop enough to be called a rap record, definitely not reggae enough to be considered pure reggae, but the blend, along with a healthy influence of doo-wop music, was perfect for the open-minded neo-soul scene. Along with Erykah Badu's Baduizm, it is considered a landmark release for the neo-soul genre, and certainly helped to pave the way for those records we love by Q-Tip, The Roots, J Dilla, Common, Bilal, and more.
In 2015, Miseducation's legacy is amongst the upmost tier of 90s musical releases. Not only is it certified 8x platinum in the United States, having sold over nineteen million copies worldwide, but the LP is a staple on best-of lists across publications like Rolling Stone, The Source, Vibe, and more. Frankly speaking, there aren't many albums that fall under the hip hop umbrella that have the same aura as Miseducation. It's do in large part to a varied sound that appealed to a wide range audience.
The album's first track, "Lost Ones," is bonafied hip hop. Hill's double duty on the verses and hook is amongst the better examples of how a single artist can tackle both of those components in a given track. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" is another instance of Hill dominating verse/chorus to the fullest, but this time with enough pop sensability to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It's worth noting that "Doo Wop (That Thing)" also boasted a feminist tone that was virtually non-existent in rap at the time. Even hip hop in 2015 could use a little more of the message that Hill was unleashing in these lines:
"The second verse is dedicated to the men / More concerned with his rims and his Timbs than his women...The pretty face men claiming that they did a bid men / Need to take care of they three or four kids / And they face a court case when the child support late / Money taking and heart breaking, now you wonder why women hate men
The sneaky, silent men / The punk, domestic violence men / Quick to shoot the semen, stop acting like boys and be men / How you gonna win when you ain't right within?"
The final question rings out three times to increase the potency.
On "Superstar," Hill continues to speak to the art-form she loves so dearly. "Hip-Hop, started out in the heart, now everybody tryin to chart," kicks things off before eventually posing the question "Music is supposed to inspire / How come we ain't gettin no higher?" Through Miseducation, Hill proved that you can stay conscious on a record and still see widespread success. It's an important lesson that artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul originally tried to teach the game, but even they haven't moved units quite like Hill did with this one.
The genre-spanning through rap delivery, reggae tendencies, and pop sensibility is all tied together with soul. Lauryn bares it all on these tracks, pouring her all into the albums' fourteen tracks. Especially heartfelt performances can be found on cuts like "I Used to Love Him," "Nothing Even Matters," or "To Zion." Hill said of the writing process, in the book Heart of Soul, "When some women are pregnant, their hair and their nails grow, but for me it was my mind and ability to create. I had the desire to write in a capacity that I hadn't done in a while. I don't know if it's a hormonal or emotional thing.[...] I was very in touch with my feelings at the time." Of the early writing process, Hill said, "Every time I got hurt, every time I was disappointed, every time I learned, I just wrote a song."
Her emotions were surely the driving force behind such a great album, but it was helped along the way with some friends. While Hill handled most of the writing and production all by herself, Miseducation also included contributions from artists like Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, John Legend, and Carlos Santana, and Hill really squeezed the A-game out of that legendary, supporting cast. Her duet with Mary J. Blige on "I Used To Love Him" is spectacular, the one with D'Angelo is downright sexy, and Santana's guitar work on "To Zion" gives the track an extra push into classic territory. John Legend performed piano on "Everything is Everything," which was a very early sign of success in his career that has exploded ever since.
Lastly, the defining characteristic of Miseducation is that it is Lauryn Hill's only solo studio record. She did MTV's Unplugged a few years after, but it was stylistically different from her neo-soul/hip hop style on this album. Maybe it was the pregnancy, maybe it was the youth, but Hill never went back into the studio to record a full record ever since.
Hill continues to tour on the success of Miseducation, playing tracks from the album with a funky backing band. The record lives on as a classic record, not just in hip hop or neo-soul, but in American history. As the album turns seventeen today, we reflect on its influence and give thanks for Lauryn for creating such a forward-thinking, genre-crossing, expansive record for us to enjoy. There's no doubt that the landscape of popular music would be at least slightly different had the LP not been released.