Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
The year 1998 was a weird one for hip hop, but it was all building up to that period. We were still mourning the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in tandem from 1996 to 1997. Both of those losses ultimately ended the East Coast vs. West Coast feud and left a gaping void in the “King” category. Little did we know that by September of ’98, a dark horse named Jay Z would release his pivotal Vol 2…Hard Knock Life, which would fling him directly into households worldwide. As for women in hip hop, well, times had certainly changed.
Gone were the days of fighting over who was the “real” Roxanne; instead Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were participating in wig-snatching contests while simultaneously upping the crude factor with every bar their rap mentors wrote for them. Puff Daddy was ushering in the shiny suits, as Rawkus Records was fighting for the soul of backpackers. The little genre that could was being tugged in all different directions, with no tangible meeting point. And just like that, on August 25th, 1998, a little Jersey girl named Lauryn “L-Boogie” Hill forever changed the way we approached hip hop music by delivering her pièce de résistance titled The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. And now it turns 15.
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was a lot of things to a lot of people, namely Lauryn Hill herself. Two years prior, Ms. Hill struck gold (and Platinum and Diamond) as part of The Fugees with their groundbreaking album The Score. It wasn’t enough though. Hill has often stated in the past that Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel were asked about lyrics in interviews (how dare they ask Pras about lyrics!), while Lauryn was asked about lipstick colors. She was already known as an adept lyricist herself, yet because “Killing Me Softly” was such a dominant force on that LP, her bars on album cuts like “Zealots” and the title track had no shot in hell of entering the conversation. That, and she was a female.
In 1997 (despite claiming Lauryn would serve up her solo debut album first), Wyclef released The Carnival with Lauryn’s DNA all over it. We learn now that the two had an ongoing love affair that ended around the same time as The Fugees, and while Hill had long since met Rohan Marley (son of the late Bob Marley) at this point, she still participated in Clef’s project. She even concealed her pregnant belly in Wyclef’s “Guantanamera,” while outshining him on his own opus on a number of songs. It was around this time that the genesis of Miseducation had begun. Lauryn found out she was pregnant months earlier, and despite being told to consider her career (as in, terminate the pregnancy) she chose to have the baby. Being pregnant, her emotions were running wild, her voice was the fullest it had ever been, and her subconscious focus was to rewrite history.
The album opened with the cutthroat “Lost Ones,” with Hill throwing verbal darts in the direction of Wyclef, removing romance from the equation and basically calling him a clown. “I was on the humble, you on every station,” she barks in a broken patois. However, the pregnancy hormones kicked right back in for “Ex-Factor,” where woozy, slightly off-tune instruments housed a soliloquy of losing love in the interest of self-betterment. “See I know what we’ve got to do,” she sings. “You let go, and I’ll let go too. ‘Cause no one’s hurt me more than you. And no one ever will.”
Sure we know now that every sad bar was sung in the key of Clef, but Lauryn Hill wasn’t just speaking about herself — she was speaking up for every broken girl and boy who thought that one day they would burn their future copies of He’s Just Not That Into You and relish in their right to reciprocity. That wasn’t happening here, and Lauryn Hill was not-so-quietly accepting it. For all of us.
Recruiting the legendary Carlos Santana for guitar duties on “To Zion” was the smartest decision Lauryn Hill could have ever made. No other musician could cradle strings in a way to convey peaceful bliss like Santana, while Lauryn cooed a love song to her unborn son. Hill was barely 23, but she was wise enough to know that motherhood was in her genes. (Her grandmother had 13 children, after all.) “‘Look at your career,’ they said. ‘Lauryn, baby, use your head.’ But instead I chose to use my heart.” Her old soul gained a few more rings the day she penned that song.
The album needed a pop hit, one that Lauryn could feel comfortable with still referring to as “hip hop,” yet bold enough to propel her positive message to the masses. That was “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Adult horns, kiddie pianos and Lauryn’s double-threat of singing and rapping were all this song needed to achieve its goal. Religious undertones ran rampant (“A Muslim sleeping with the jin” and “that was the sin that did Jezebel in”), but it wasn’t done in a preachy way that would intimidate pagans. It was just enough to convey that Lauryn had a belief system in tact, while the varied references kept her actual denomination a mystery.
The song was a cautionary tale to women everywhere: be careful about who you fall in love with. Despite the chirpy production, “Doo Wop” is actually pretty dark, thereby making the contrast brilliant. She achieved a pop bpm without having to compromise her message. Mission accomplished.
Of course, in the midst of lamenting about love, L-Boogie had to bring the beast out and show her lyrical prowess. “Final Hour” was straight spitting in a way that could only be described as politely violent. She was thumping on Bibles and Q’urans, waving her checkbook, and flinging her freshly-grown dreadlocks all over this track without uttering a single profanity (she made it a point not to curse at all on Miseducation, out of respect for the new life growing inside of her). It’s hard to talk out of the side of your mouth without using a four-letter word, but Hill did so with finesse. It was a graceful warning shot to anyone who might have suspected she had fallen off or was bound for mom jeans.
The elephant in the studio is that The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill wasn’t “written, produced, and arranged” by Lauryn Hill, as the back cover initially stated. Some felt Hill gave herself all of the credit because she wanted the world to witness a woman in the driver’s seat. Others just deduced she was greedy. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, yet the participation of other minds wasn’t nearly enough to make this a group effort.
Hill carried a considerable amount of the writing and production, while musicians like James Poyser and New Ark Entertainment (Vada Nobles, Johari Newton, Rasheem Pugh and Tejumold Newton) assisted in some areas. A young pianist by the name of John R. Stephens banged on his keys for the Stevie Wonder-influenced “Everything Is Everything.” Years later, we would come to know him as John Legend.
Credited cameos on The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill are slim. Mary J. Blige plays tag team with Lauryn on “I Used To Love Him” on a song that truly encapsulates two women venting to one another. If this one had a video, Angela Bassett would have been the star of it. Meanwhile D’Angelo popped up on “Nothing Even Matters” a few years before fading into obscurity. Reggae maven Shelly Thunder sprinkles her patois onto “Forgive Them Father,” because despite canoodling with a Marley, Hill had enough sense not to take on the double duty of diva and dancehall queen.
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill closes with a bonus track that no one actually regards as a bonus because it’s such a vital thread in the fabric of the work. “Tell Him” is Lauryn Hill’s take on the Biblical scripture 1 Corinthians 13, where Lauryn is singing a prayer. She’s praying for clarity. “Make me unselfish, without being blind,” she sings in an attempt to find peace in a situation that was so emotionally destructive it provided enough fodder to craft an entire album.
See, some of us scribble in our journals or make sad Spotify playlists. Others dedicate their Tumblr pages and Instagram accounts to posting emo quotes embossed over photos of meadows and placid lakes. Lauryn Hill made an album. And without consciously knowing it, she took her abilities to sing and rap and seamlessly wove them together, thereby proving that hip hop didn’t have to reside on one specific side of the fence to still maintain its integrity. It could be many things, and after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill arrived, it actually was.
From the classroom imagery in the cover art to the album title itself, it was evident that Lauryn Hill was schooling us, while also schooling herself. Not everyone can say they made history out of their hurt, but Lauryn Hill can — and 15 years later, class is still in session.