Title: “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”
Artist: Lauryn Hill
Release date: 1998
Favorite track: “To Zion”
I couldn’t have chosen a better record for this week if I’d planned it — I didn’t, by the way.
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” has been on hold for me at FWB Vintage Records for months (I’m sorry, guys), and I’ve wanted it in my collection for even longer. It won the 1999 Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best R&B Album. Hill won three more Grammy Awards that evening, and was nominated for five more.
I love featuring it now, smack dab in the middle of Black History Month. Hill’s debut album was hugely influential, etching a spot for itself on a thousand lists, such as the greatest hip-hop albums, albums of the ‘90s, albums by women, albums by a black musician, greatest rap albums and — unequivocally — greatest albums of all time.
The album title alludes to the autobiography “The Education of Sonny Carson” and Carter G. Woodson’s novel “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” Hill wrote the record after being pregnant with her oldest son, Zion.
Black History Month is not the only case of good timing. This style of music has been on my heart lately.
Gone are the days when I enjoyed acoustic soloist coffee shop calm music or 1970s rock (it will be back). My heart isn’t in it at the moment. The past couple years, I’ve felt myself become more and more drawn to smooth jazz, R&B, hip-hop and rap. It’s hitting my soul in a way rock honestly never has.
It feels strange saying it, because I love rock. But, this kind of album is where I’m at right now.
The framing of this 16-track record is phenomenal.
There is nothing more memorable than the album intro and segments featuring Ras Baraka, a teacher, discussing love with his students. I think what makes this so poignant is the idea that arguably the most important principle of humanity is never truly taught or, better yet, that it can’t be taught. We are not only not educated in love, but also seem to be miseducated in it through our own experiences.
These segments were recorded in Hill’s living room in only one take, according to Essence Magazine. Baraka used the Socratic method, posing several questions to elicit conversation, according to the magazine. The rawness of the scenario is palpable.
The opening track, “Lost Ones,” is a summary of the album — Hill’s experiences with life, love, money and religion. Her rap style is sharp, clean and classic hip-hop.
There is nothing to criticize. The lyrics are simple, yet observant. The catchy chorus features light vocal chanting.
The second single, “Ex Factor,” is such a wonderful representation of how Hill influenced music made after this record. The ultra-smooth vocals will elicit as many chills as the pain-filled lyrics do. I love the double entendre in the song title, the idea of someone having both the “it” factor that affects you and also the effect only an ex-lover can have. This song hits hard. Many suspect the subject matter revolves around Hill’s former bandmate in The Fugees, Wyclef Jean.
It could all be so simple
But you’d rather make it hard
Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars
— “Ex Factor”
“To Zion” is a lovely experimentation with sound, featuring the Latin flair of guitarist Carlos Santana. Hill’s playful nature with genres is what makes this album such a versatile piece in music history. Hill’s vocals in this gospel-sounding track are also noticeably natural. She isn’t reaching for inaccessible notes, taking on a different vocal identity or forcing any techniques. This is a song made about her son, and it shows in the passionate, organic vocal style and lyrics. I could listen to it all day.
“How many people in here have ever been in love?” said Baraka at the end of “To Zion.” He then asks for the definition of love, sans the assistance of a Webster’s Dictionary. The responses will give you something to think about.
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” is the first Hill song I ever heard and the first single from the album. I can remember singing it as a little girl. It’s still one of my all-time favorites. This analysis of male and female tendencies just has “that thing.” It won Hill the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song at the 1999 Grammy Awards. The music video features a split screen of Hill singing on one side in normal clothes, and singing on the other side in a 1960s style of clothing.
The end of the track features a snippet of students discussing loving someone versus being in love with someone.
“Superstar” is a slick track that could slide into the R&B or pop genres without making a fuss. The lyrics reprimand musicians for creating meaningless music for fame and fortune. This message carries more weight today than ever.
Come on baby light my fire
Everything you drop is so tired
Music is supposed to inspire
How come we ain’t gettin' no higher?
“Final Hour” immediately sets a more serious tone with its darker music. Hill spits quicker in a way that seems to reflect the lyrics’ subject of her career, focus and determination. “You can get the money. You can get the power. But keep your eyes on the final hour,” Hill chants throughout the song.
“When It Hurts So Bad” is another emotionally painful listen. It’s the kind of song that makes me wish I could sing — I call it the “Lauryn Effect.” “I Used to Love Him” has it, too.
I loved real, real hard once
But the love wasn’t returned
Found out the man I’d die for
He wasn’t even concerned
— “When It Hurts So Bad”
“Every Ghetto, Every City” pops a bit of fun confidence into the record. I detect a bit of Stevie Wonder’s upbeat funk flair. I especially hear it in one of my favorite songs of his, “Living for the City,” which — like this album — also snagged its fair share of Grammys.
“Everything for Everything” is the third and final single on the record. It’s a powerful, fervent track that fills out this album. At this point on the album, it truly feels like the final piece.
The final track and title track revisits Hill’s instinctive vocal register to a more classical music sound featuring piano.
The album art features a portrait of Hill sketched into a school desk, depicting the education, or rather miseducational, theme of the record.