I have been a music nerd for a long time—it’s difficult to judge my favorite music without waxing nostalgic. The associations that go along with my favorite records and songs are deep and span periods of my life that seem epochal but still tangible. I remember the lost childhood art of boredom and the freedom music provided from it; for instance, long summer evenings mowing the grass with a Disc-man in the pocket of my cargo shorts, or listening to the radio on the bus to and from school while looking out the window. The accompaniment to this impressionable period tends to stick in the mind regardless of its quality.
But sometimes you get lucky and listen to something really good that holds up over time.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one such album which brings to mind long afternoons at my first summer job as a ride operator in a local arcade. The arcade was empty on particularly sunny days—kids were at the pool or playing outside—and the managers, older high school kids, would take long “smoke breaks,” which meant they were going to sneak booze out back by the dumpster, leaving the staff to watch over the tedium of unused games and ugly carpeting. During these times I would sneak an earbud and listen to music.
At the time I had no idea about the political significance of Lauryn Hill, her activism, or what her struggle embodied. All I knew was that The Miseducation didn’t sound like anything I’d heard. The drum kit on the first track “Lost Ones” was aggressive but ambling; a thumping guitar hung on the back of the offbeats like a Bob Marley song, and there was this woman rapping: a tenor voice which was smooth and at ease with itself.
The theme running through The Miseducation is inseparable from its sound. In the opening skit there is the sound of a school bell ringing and a teacher taking attendance. A flamenco guitar strums chords in the background. The teacher calls for Lauryn Hill but she’s not there. “Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill?” he says.
There is no one ‘right’ interpretation of what this means but the implication is: this is Lauryn Hill’s “miseducation,” and in the title track “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” she opines:
I look at my environment
And wonder where the fire went
What happened to everything we used to be
I hear so many cry for help
Searching outside of themselves
Lauryn’s solution is the classic artistic solution—her “miseducation” is individuation. In “To Zion,” an ode to her newborn son and a celebration of motherhood, she sings:
But everybody told me to be smart
“Look at your career,” they said
“Lauryn baby use your head.”
But instead I chose to use my heart
Implicit in the artist’s journey is the belief that the truest expression is the individual’s. When the collective weakens or becomes conventional, the job of the artist is to breathe life back into it with a new expression which is easier said than done. The Miseducation is not just a title but a description of Hill’s mission to revivify hip-hop by weaving together previously unacquainted elements to create something original.
In an interview shortly after the release Hill talked about the personal meaning of Miseducation:
“Every day it means something more, actually. People automatically thought, she must have not done school, or the teachers didn’t teach anything. But that wasn’t it. The meaning behind it was really a catch and me learning that when I thought I was my most wise, I was really not wise at all. And in my humility, and in those places where most people wouldn’t expect a lesson to come from, that’s where I learned so much… It’s contrary to what the world says is education, this education came from life and experience.”
Much of Hill’s solo effort was prefigured in her previous work with the Fugees (reggae samples, mellow beats, and political overtures) who, as a group, were groundbreaking in their own right, but The Miseducation is unobstructed by other voices. Like many artists who are exploring new territory, Hill pushed hip-hop further by critiquing it. She sings in the song “Superstar”:
Yo hip-hop, started out in the heart
Now everybody tryin to chart
The Miseducation critiques hip-hop in both form and content. Hill raps on most of the songs but not all, and even on the rap heavy songs—“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and “Final Hour,”—she carries a melody throughout. Therefore it’s from both within and without that she’s able to critique, with one foot in and one foot out of hip-hop. The Miseducation transcends genre by blending elements from rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, gospel, reggae, and traditional Caribbean music. No one before or since Lauryn Hill could blend these elements with as much taste and restraint.
Hill is concerned with more than the technical and personal. She is overtly spiritual. Even her most catchy songs find a way to invoke the metaphysical:
Talking out your neck, sayin’ you’re a Christian
A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who you gon’ tell when the repercussions spin?
Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend
Coming partially from without, Lauryn Hill was in a unique position to express this even deeper critique of hip-hop culture. Instead of focusing on the outward trappings of fame & excess, The Miseducation is a series of introspections, aided in part by allusions to Rastafarianism, Christianity, and personal experience:
I wrote these words (I wrote these words) for everyone who struggles in their youth
Who won’t accept deception, in instead of what is truth
It seems we lose the game
Before we even start to play
Who made these rules?
This was not the first time these themes were explored in hip-hop but The Miseducation was the popularization of a new kind of positivity in a genre that was struggling to define itself (after the violent deaths of its biggest stars, Tupac and Biggie Smalls), and was desperate for a note of hope.
When I was a kid I listened to a lot of bad music—trendy, cheesy, ephemeral—I listen today and cringe. How could I have been so deluded? But there are a handful of artists I listened to that stood the test of time. I listened to many of them in that dusty old arcade. I first discovered Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and John Mayer’s “Continuum,” those lonely summers.
The only time I got in trouble for listening to music is because I got caught listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
I got caught because I was bobbing my head.
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