Released in August 1998, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ is Lauryn Hill’s only solo studio album and one that would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed releases of all time. To celebrate its 25th anniversary we’re looking back at its creation and legacy as our classic album of the month.
Making her name as one-third of the Hip Hop group The Fugees, Lauryn Hill was already a star by 1998. Her early career began as an actress culminating in a role in Sister Act II alongside Whoppi Goldberg where she was briefly able to showcase her vocal talents while she was still in high school. Having met Pras Michel at their New Jersey High School and joined with Pras’ cousin Wyclef Jean, the trio formed a socially conscious Hip Hop group, The Fugees, in the early 1990s and would go on to score several hits taken from their 1996 album ‘The Score’, including ‘Ready or Not’, ‘Fu-Gee-La’, and ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’. While touring for that album, Hill met Rohan Marley, an American Football player and son of Bob Marley. The pair would begin a romantic relationship and go on to have a son, born in August 1997 shortly before Hill began recording her solo album. Throughout this time the relationships between Hill and the other members of The Fugees, particularly Wyclef Jean, were strained, resulting in the group breaking up in early 1997.
‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ opens with the sound of a classroom and of pupils’ names being called for morning registration until Lauryn Hill is called with no response, apparently missing. It is, thanks to its contrast, the perfect introduction to the hard-nosed boom-bap rap of opening track proper ‘Lost Ones’. A barely masked diss-track aimed at Wyclef Jean, the track complains of falsehoods and hypocrisy from Jean regarding his public statements on the groups split, while returning to the refrain “you might win some but you just lost one”, with the one being Ms. Lauryn Hill herself. Showcasing both Hill’s lyrical prowess, rap flow and singing voice, it establishes the key premise of the album; this is an album from and about Lauryn Hill and it comes from an intimate and personal place of hurt and hard fought relationships. The track would go on to be nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the Grammy Awards and in later years would regularly feature in lists of the best Hip Hop tracks of all time, regularly credited as one of the very top tracks by a female rapper.
The R&B ballad, ‘Ex-Factor’ follows and is again, potentially about Wyclef Jean. A pained, emotive breakup song, Hill sings with a strength and a purpose that captures the moment of moving on, turning a new leaf, and opening a new chapter as she castigates her ex “no one’s hurt me more than you, and no one ever will”. Delivered without an overt rap section, the track was released as a single and has gone on to be covered by artists such as Beyoncé and sampled by Drake and Cardi B among many more.
The personal tracks continue on ‘To Zion’, a track written for her newborn son, Zion David. Featuring a military snare drum march and Spanish guitar playing by Carlos Santana the track also features a lyrical breakdown built on the refrain “marching to Zion” as an outro, drawing on the percussion throughout. The song’s chorus, “now the joy of my world is in Zion” draws parallel meaning as Hill draws both on love for her son and on her keen sense of spirituality and strong faith. A lover of double meanings, Hill delivers this one with Gospel influenced backing vocals to accentuate the point. A fan of Santana’s work, Hill re-paid the favour of his appearance and appeared on his 1999 collaborator heavy hit album, ‘Supernatural’.
Other collaborations on the album include ‘I Used to Love Him’ featuring Mary J Blige, another breakup track that, while featuring two of the strongest vocalists of the time, doesn’t especially stand out amongst the excellence surrounding it. Elsewhere, Hill is joined by Neo Soul leading light D’Angelo on ‘Nothing Even Matters’ a romantic ballad low on lyrical complexity and high on twisting, teasing vocal interplay as the artists' voices compliment each other, overlapping and taking turns to lead and provide backing in layered harmonies. A showcase track in the burgeoning Neo Soul genre, it helped cement Hill’s place as both an accomplished rapper and a vocal superstar in her own right.
Elsewhere, single ‘Everything Is Everything’ is a rap treatise on sticking through struggles and, in turn, sticking it to The Man through perseverance. Built on a Hip Hop beat and strings, the piano featured the major debut by future superstar John Legend. ‘Superstar’ critiques the braggadocio common in most Hip Hop of the time and its perceived lack of inspiration and depth while riffing on the lyrics and melody of The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’.
The lead single, ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ would go on to become the eventual winner at the Grammy Awards for both Best R&B Song and Best Female Performance for an R&B Song, and would be the first solo Hip Hop song to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 alongside a long list of similar accolades. Split roughly in two halves, the track first warns women off getting in too deep with men who show them little respect while also suggesting that many women do not show themselves enough respect in the process. The second half addresses male listeners, warning them off playing the big man and showing no respect to others around them while imploring them to take time to look within. With twenty five years of cultural change it’s attitudes now look broadly conservative, but its balance of addressing both genders with scorn while attempting to raise everybody up fit within the broader messaging of the socially conscious rap of the time.
Commercially successful, lauded by critics both at the time and subsequently, packed with familiar singles that have been covered and sampled time and again in the years since from Drake to Amy Winehouse, and a bold ‘F- you’ to her previous musical collaborators who suggested she shouldn’t go solo, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ was a triumph from the get-go.
Soon it would be swamped with a lawsuit swirling around the level of credit due to the musicians and producers who Hill had worked with at Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica resulting in an out of court settlement several years later. Hill would go on to collaborate and tour sporadically while slowly stepping away from the public eye as she raised several children she had with Marley before facing further legal issues around unfiled tax. Brief reunions with The Fugees would come and go, while the other members would go on to have their own legal problems.
Throughout it all, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ would continue to gain accolades. While Ms. Lauryn Hill did release an MTV Unplugged set, this remains her only studio album placing her in a rarefied group of artists, including The La’s and the Sex Pistols, with one singular and definitive work loved by millions.