Writers Reflect on Ms. Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’
“This is the secret weapon of Lauryn Hill: she was all things to everybody.”
Ms. Lauryn Hill is a cultural and political icon; a shapeshifting musical and literary being that will forever touch souls with her creativity. From her years with the Fugees to her solo opus, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, there will only ever be one of her. Now 20 years old, the GRAMMY-winning album becomes more relevant with each passing day, with its influential fingerprints found all across modern music.
In 2018, we have both Drake and Cardi B borrowing from the weeping “Ex Factor.” We have upcoming acts citing Ms. Hill as an influence and a role model. We have expansive prose written in the name of Miseducation, we have controversy and we have defense, and we have all the makings of a woman whose star power will outlive every warping vinyl copy of her seminal record.
To celebrate the conjuring and timeless spirit of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on its 20th birthday, we’ve reached out to celebrated culture writers, some of which penned Ms. Hill’s 1998 cover stories and opening reviews, and had them reflect on the personal and cultural impact of the album. Surprise, surprise: Ms. Lauryn Hill’s impact was and continues to be nothing short of seismic.
Karen Good Marable, Wrote the VIBE Cover Story in 1998
“It’s hard to answer which song from Miseducation has stayed with me the longest. ‘Lost Ones’ is a classic. And I’ve always loved the groove of ‘Superstar,’ how she mocks the wannabes. But probably the most enduring song on the album is, for me, ‘When It Hurts So Bad.’ I was in my mid-to-late twenties when the album debuted, rising out of the fog of a bad situation, and I could relate completely to this song. The phrasing of the opening line—‘I loved real, real hard once / But love wasn’t returned’—recall Donny Hathaway’s ‘I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,’ so you know she’s about to take you there. And on the part just before the chorus, where she sings ‘But I / I loved the young man…’ her runs make me weak. For all of the song’s lament, it was ultimately empowering, encouraging listeners to let go and let God. Perhaps that was the theme of the album: After winter, must come spring.
“I mean, I knew Miseducation would be an important album because Lauryn is a tremendously gifted artist. We knew that with how she massacred The Score. But when I hear her rhyme on ‘Everything Is Everything’: ‘I begat this / Flippin in the ghetto on a dirty mattress / You can’t match this / Rapper slash actress / More powerful than two Cleopatras / Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti…’ I got excited. C’mon son.
“I think the power of Miseducation, why it resonates to this day, is manifold: Chiefly, here was a woman telling her truth, laying herself bare. That sort of articulation of vulnerability, especially in your embarrassing, angsty twenties, will always resonate. At the same time, Lauryn’s tongue was a machete. Her rhymes on the album, especially on ‘Final Hour’ and ‘Lost Ones,’ solidified her as one of the best rappers in the game—period. Few could rival her flows and dizzying cultural references. Aaaaand the woman could sing? Like, really sing. Lauryn was a triple threat and she brought all these powers to Miseducation.
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill captured the cultural zeitgeist at a time hip-hop could no longer be denied. Because Lauryn comes out of the Native Tongues lineage, it made sense she felt it necessary to create a work not just about personal love and loss, but also a kind of concept album considering the carnage happening in the culture. Miseducation—with its employment of hip-hop meets scripture—was both commentary and confrontation. And it was done by this brilliant, gorgeous, chocolate-brown woman from Newark with locs who carried herself like a queen. Lauryn Hill was limitless.”
Touré, Writer, Reviewed Miseducation for Rolling Stone in 1998
“Well, I reviewed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for Rolling Stone, so I probably had it two weeks before it came out. Maybe three weeks. I would’ve just sat and listened to it over and over. Lauryn was already an artist who we thought the world of; we expected the world of her. It was the opposite of the artist who comes out of nowhere. Everybody was dying for the Lauryn Hill solo album. I love the cover. It sets you in this mood of Roots and Marley, and authentic and soulful. The album itself, it’s soulful. It’s a mixture of hip-hop and soul music, which was really interesting that she had articulated this unique space that only she could play in. And it was about love and Blackness, and this love of love. Think about the song with D’Angelo, it’s so loving.
“The interludes were really valuable. It’s like children in a school setting, talking to a teacher about love. It just communicates the vibe of where she is, thinking about children and school, and thinking about love. It takes you back to when you were a child. For me, that’s the ‘70s, that’s soul music, further cementing the discussion of classic, real soul music.
“The skits are definitely important. The whole package just communicated the seriousness of her as an artist, the seriousness of Black culture. Black culture and love are really celebrated on this. I loved ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,’ that was really lovely to hear her singing. I feel like, ‘Everything Is Everything’ and ‘Doo Wop’ were probably the first songs that I really zoned in on. ‘Lost Ones’ was the more hip-hop-sounding song, so I probably zoned in on those first. As time goes on, you get more into the ballads and the softer songs. It’s a very beautiful album.
“I think I thought it was a classic. I think I gave it four, four-and-a-half stars. It was clear from the beginning we were dealing with something really big because of the size of Lauryn in the culture and the expectation of the album. Right away, listening to it, you see it’s occupying the space in between hip-hop and soul, borrowing from both, creating a new lane between them. That was really powerful. It’s amazing when you could make something that takes the genre to another level, but when you create something that works within two genres… I loved the album in and of itself. I could tell right away that others would feel the same. It’s a poppy album in that it is clearly—it has a broad appeal, and it’s Lauryn and everybody’s paying attention to Lauryn. You know this is a big deal album, people are waiting for it. I don’t like to throw around the word classic, but there was a consciousness of Lauryn is important, her music is important; this is a musical moment that matters.
“I think quantifying cultural impact is always tricky, right? There’s not a metric, like: ‘She had a 7.2 gigahertz impact whereas Wyclef only had a 6.2.’ [Laughs] We can’t quantify any of this, but her impact on culture is massive. It’s a shame that the Unplugged album and the seemingly crazy Lauryn starts to overshadow the discussion of the brilliant Lauryn. It’s just not appropriate when the culture started focusing on ‘Oh Lauryn’s crazy’ and not ‘Lauryn’s brilliant.’
“She felt a tremendous amount of pressure just to be an icon, to be perfect, and it really affected her. She felt a tremendous amount of pressure, and that was damaging to her. Her mom was working with her, her cousin is her assistant, she was providing money for other people who were super close to her, who might be considered family. That, a few artists told me, creates this extraordinary amount of pressure on you. You are the breadwinner for your family. They rely on you, and if something doesn’t go right, they don’t eat, virtually. That creates a tremendous amount of pressure.
“I can hear ‘Nothing Even Matters’ and it’s a song that really matters. It’s a song that is as important and loving and… There’s not enough discussion of love in hip-hop. There’s a lot more discussion of violence, of pain, of anger, of revenge… Culturally, soul music was dominant before hip-hop, and that was all about love. The culture has shifted to discussing everything else, and to have this icon who we looked up to come out and be a warrior for love was really, really powerful. Songs like ‘Nothing Even Matters’ really underlined that. I could put that album on, right now, and my mom, my kids, and my wife, and I would all be happy.”
Danyel Smith, Writer, Selected Lauryn Hill for the cover of VIBE in 1998
“From the moment I heard it, I knew that it was going to be something special. At that time, there was a lot of anticipation for her solo project. We were all sitting on the edge of our seats, so to speak, waiting for it to drop. For myself, I was wanting to put her on the cover of the magazine.
“I think that I’m a pretty good forecaster of trends, but I think that I knew that she was going to win GRAMMYs from it, from almost the very beginning. I don’t know if I thought that in 20 years, everyone was going to be listening to this album, but with every passing year, I saw just how much of an effect it was having. Not just on women, not just Black women, but music-loving culture in general and globally.
“She was a superstar from the moment that I met her, even when she was a part of the Fugees, she was a standout. I might be a rare person in that I love Lauryn even more as an MC than a singer… My favorite song on the album is ‘Lost Ones,’ but I wasn’t surprised by [her pivot to soul]. She’s multi-talented and I think this idea that people are only supposed to be one thing was old-fashioned even then. She’s multi-dimensional and a hall-of-fame MC, singer, and her overall presence is pure star power.
“I think the singular image of Lauryn Hill holding all of her GRAMMYs is an image for all time. I think that as hip-hop has grown into a global entity, so much so that we almost forget how difficult it was for hip-hop to be recognized on the strength of its artistic merit and impact. And Lauryn did that, not just for women, not just for Black women, but for hip-hop—period.”
Kris Ex, Writer and Author
“I think I sat down with the record like everyone else did—when it dropped. I recall being hella disappointed on the first listen and for quite some time after that. ‘Lost Ones’ had been released and that was a pure banger. Moreover, it was Caribbean-influenced and pointed and firing shots, and all these things that signaled a hip-hop classic coming.
“But the album was anything but that. It was mature and R&B and introspective and devoted. People don’t want to admit it, and it wasn’t something that was largely spoken about in publications and the industry proper, but people were upset and confused that the best woman to ever rap ever made an album that was largely devoid of rap songs. By the end of the album, the songs start melding together as one long ballad and it was painful. It’s also hilarious because those songs are amongst my favorite from the album at this point.
“When we heard it, we thought Lauryn had produced just about every note on it. Does ‘To Zion’ feel different with the hindsight of lawsuits? Does it feel less beautiful than the idea of Lauryn Hill dueting with herself as a singer and producer while Carlos Santana just showed up with his guitar to pay homage to an emerging force in pop music history?
“Does it matter? Maybe it does. But the way we heard it is the way we heard it and first impressions do deep psychological things. This is a record that took us into ourselves and did what the Fugees had been doing and showing and saying: This is hip-hop. This is Black art. This, too, is us.
“Lauryn took her Black ass to the GRAMMYs and picked up enough awards to look like Slick Rick’s chains when she held them up for photos. She expanded the palette of what hip-hop could look and taste like. Even if you didn’t want to make an R&B-influenced hip-hop record, it was freeing to know that you could, if you wanted to. It was a testament to her craft and voice and choices that the album was never viewed as an experiment. It didn’t announce itself the way Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music did. It was just a Lauryn Hill album.
“She was hurt and confused and lying to herself about it—anyone who had ever had their heart broken could see that. Anyone who had ever broken a heart could see that. Anyone who ever sat on the frontlines of heartbreak knew it wasn’t as clean and simple. We don’t get over love lost that easily. And, if we forgot, Beyoncé reminded us with Lemonade.
“It’s almost impossible to talk about the influence of this album on pop culture.
“Scratch that. It’s impossible, for me at least, to talk about the influence on this album on Black women. And that’s who this album was for. My favorite cuts off this album—‘To Zion,’ ‘Nothing Even Matters,’ ‘Ex-Factor,’ ‘Lost Ones,’ ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’—all converse with male voices and gazes in ways that make it too much about what men have to say, what we, men, have done what we, men, desire. It wasn’t our album, and the ensuing years have made that clear: Every woman rapper of note name-checks Lauryn Hill as an influence; dozens more sound like her.”
Kevin Powell, Writer, Interviewed Lauryn Hill for Rolling Stone in 1998
“I listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as soon as it came out. I had known Lauryn for years, even before the Fugees, since we both are New Jersey natives, and ran in the same hip-hop and social justice circles. One of my closest friends, Ras Baraka, now the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is the teacher talking with students all over Miseducation.
“‘Ex-Factor’ is one of the greatest heartbreak love songs ever. I literally have lived that song from both sides, it has made me cry, cringe, feel, and believe in love no matter what. It has made me think, over and over, about the importance of self-love, of taking care of one’s self and not allowing anyone to play games with your life, or your love, how precious both are. If ever a song cries, it is ‘Ex-Factor.’
“I did know [the album would mean so much], in my gut, because I know music, great music, classic music, and you just knew there was something very special about Miseducation, lyrically, musically, her vulnerability, and her incredible honesty about both the personal and the political.
“Miseducation is one of the greatest albums ever, bar none, regardless of genre of music. It is up there with the best work by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan. It is what we would call a game-changer. I have literally come across young people, especially young women and girls, not even born when it came out but know every lyric to every song on that album. That says it all right there. It is a timeless, classic album.
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is arguably not only one of the greatest albums ever, but also an incredible anthem for women, all women, for girls, all girls. She predicted everything from the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, and even the deterioration of both hip-hop and pop culture by challenging the un-thinking of us all. It is a gift, really, to us all, as important as the writings of Joan Didion and James Baldwin, and as monumental as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Carole King’s Tapestry. It deserves to be in all those conversations, forever.”
Najma Sharif, Writer, Founder of the Black Muslim Collective
“I first really sat with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill when I was in sixth grade, I only listened to it ‘cause I thought I was supposed to-–I was peer pressured into it. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I knew she was going to be headlining at Afropunk that I revisited it properly on my own.
“My relationship with this album has changed since I’ve become more hip to some of her, erm, questionable lyrics, and I’m sure I’ll feel different about it in 20 years. And that’s the thing, I don’t think we’d be discussing this album, her only body of work, two decades later if our relationships didn’t morph with this body of work. It has taken on different lives for me.
“Lauryn was my age when she released this album and it’s sustained her for two decades. In a time when pumping out content is necessary to stay relevant, Lauryn teaches me a lesson of moving on your own time and in your own purpose.
“As a person, I want to be so respected and revered that when I arrive two hours late to anything, a sense of relief and gratitude comes over everyone. That kind of temporary amnesia of the struggles everyone went through in their wait for you? That is power. I don’t care what anyone says. That is excellence.”
Keith “Murph” Murphy, Writer
“I remember everybody was waiting for it because we knew what she had done with the Fugees. We knew what Lauryn had done with a couple of one-off tracks. The thing everyone was waiting for was the God MC. We thought we were gonna get a continuation of the best woman MC in the game, and top three MC period, during that time. I don’t think people really understand how great Lauryn Hill was on the mic. The verses she was giving on that second Fugees album was stuff that Redman, André 3000, Rakim, or anybody would look at and say, ‘That’s a crazy verse.’
“When I heard this album, it threw me for a loop. It took me a while to get used to it because I wasn’t ready for Lauryn Hill channeling Nina Simone. That’s what I got from that album. I got the closest you would ever get to a modern-day Nina Simone, and she pulled it off.
“It’s not even a R&B album. It’s a soul album with hip-hop flourishes. It took me a little while to get used to it, because of the shocking nature of it all. And I’m saying that in the most positive way. I’m paying respect because that’s when you know an artist is great and daring. She’s like, ‘You’re not going to put me in a box. I’m going to make the important album of my generation.’ And she did: Miseducation is as genre-shifting and as landmark as you can get in any genre of music.”
This is the secret weapon of Lauryn Hill: she was all things to everybody. Sort of like Michael Jackson was, Prince was… With Lauryn: ‘Are you a feminist?’ ‘Yup, I’m a feminist.’ ‘Are you a straight-up MC?’ ‘Yup, I’m a straight-up MC.’ ‘Are you a soul singer?’ ‘Yeah, I’m that, too.’ She was everything and anything you wanted her to be. That was her legacy.
“I think ‘Ex-Factor’ is one of those songs that is so cool. Ultimately, people talk about the lyricism, but the vocals are incredible, the production is incredible. The way everything comes together is incredible. The Wu-Tang Clan sample is nuts. You don’t really notice it until you really, really listen to it. It’s so hip-hop and it’s the most soulful thing you’ve ever heard in your life… It doesn’t have an era. It travels well.”
Wanna Thompson, Freelance writer that has been mentioned in Forbes, New York Times & Newsweek
“I grew up in a musical household. Every Sunday, my siblings and I would wake up to a mixture of genres and artists across the globe. Throughout the fusion of sounds, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the record that left a lasting impression. Within the LP, I became enamored with the questions the schoolchildren innocently answered as they too were in the process of finding themselves.
“From youth to adolescence, this album has remained a poignant record in my life. I find myself returning to Miseducation often to experience bouts of peace and nostalgia. While some lyrics directly interfere with my newfound ideologies regarding respectability politics and sexual agency as I further explore the depths and beauty of womanhood, Miseducation is a staple for those who find solace in lyrics providing clarity on love, heartache, motherhood, and God.
“I feel like this album set the standard in so many ways. It is often heralded as one of the greatest records of all time and continues to be referenced by musicians who attempt to recreate its magic. This album taught me to dig deeper into myself and to pull back the different layers, no matter the fear and vulnerability I will encounter in the unraveling process. I feel like everyone wants to have that Miseducation moment and create something that is critically acclaimed across the board. It is the magnum opus, the definitive album that shifted the music industry’s core.
“There is something incredibly special and poetic about ‘To Zion.’ Lauryn sings candidly about the uncertainty surrounding her pregnancy and the happiness she felt after giving birth to her first child. At the age of 22, I found myself in a similar circumstance, contemplating my position in this world and wondering if I should bring a child into it. Throughout the whirlwind of emotions that I was experiencing, I found the answers in Hill’s prose. The negative voices in my head quickly disappeared and were replaced with healing, understanding, and purpose. The power that ‘To Zion’ exudes leaves me breathless and filled with emotion every time I hear the suffering she endured, only to come out the victor by the end. It is a story about faith, survival, and the potency of choice.”
Ivie Ani, Writer, Music Editor at Okayplayer
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has been in rotation for just about my entire life. I was six years old when it was released. I don’t ever remember not knowing who Lauryn Hill was. My mother played the album often, and years after it was released, I remember the singles and videos still being in rotation. It was the soundtrack to my childhood. I saw Lauryn Hill perform live for the first time this summer. Out of every song I’ve heard, every film I’ve watched, and every book I’ve read, this is the only piece of art that’s ever made me cry.
“‘Ex-Factor’ is really ubiquitous. Twenty years later, we’ve seen it re-emerge in the catalogues of some of the moment’s most prominent and promising artists—Drake’s ‘Nice For What,’ Cardi B’s ‘Be Careful,’ A Boogie’s ‘Get to You.’ That track has so much replay value. ‘Ex-Factor’ is the only song I’ve ever cried to. When I saw Hill perform that track live, I thought about how it must have resonated with a whole generation of women who came of age when my mother did.
“I remember seeing the music video for that song and being mesmerized because Lauryn looked so much like my mother. She has this universal black look that’s ambiguous yet specific; she could pass for a black person from any region of the world—West Africa, East Africa, the Caribbean, America. At that time, before representation was reduced to a buzzword, it was amazing to see a dark-skinned woman with natural hair on the cover of every magazine. And I’m sure that must’ve meant something to my mother, who’d just come to this country a few years before the album’s release.”
Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-chief of VIBE
“I was working at XXL at the time as the Associate Music Editor and I believe I started listening to [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] at the office. Then took it home and really started to listen. It grabbed me from the beginning.”
“It felt like it was opening up a new level in music, not just hip hop. So it means the world when someone from our beloved genre can expand the art of music with a personal project that reaches so many.”
“It has influenced me by showing that your pain and growth in relationships can create amazing art that can help others. It also showed storylines beautifully in the visual aspects. The album art to the videos.”
“As a person, this album is a super hard to listen for me. I was a young editor going through relationship issues and this album was the soundtrack to that time. Whenever I hear songs from this classic project, they take me right back to those feelings of hurt and happiness at the same time. Confused, cocky, stubborn, sensitive…but overall, loving in feel and heart.”
Michael A. Gonzales, Writer, Wrote The Source cover story on Lauryn Hill in 1998
“To tell you the truth, the first time I heard the album was at Lauryn’s house, which also doubled as one of the studios where the album was recorded. I spent the entire day with her and this was towards the end of our time together. I’d first met her when the Fugees released Blunted On Reality, so she was comfortable with me. I sat in the living room and as soon as I heard ‘Lost Ones,’ I knew the album was going to be banging, but I was somewhat surprised and pleased that the majority of The Miseducation was a soul album. We have to remember that Miseducation came out during the height of the neo-soul [movement with] D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell, and, to me, it’s in the top three of that musical movement. Afterward, Lauryn told me how when she was six, she found boxes of soul records in her parent’s basement, and it was those discs from Curtis Mayfield, The Temptations and Roberta Flack that were her true inspiration when making her album.”
“The Miseducation is one of the rare discs that I actually play from first song to last. Remember, this was the end of the 20th century and none of us had any idea how crazy the world would soon become. Recently, I was writing an essay about Miseducation for #Longreads, and I mentioned the controversy over the album’s production has marred the listening experience for some people, but not me, because no matter who was behind the boards, the album was undoubtedly Lauryn’s vision throughout. One of the things Hill told me was, ‘I feel like the blueprint of this record has been in my head for a long time,’ and I believe her. I’m sorry she felt a need to lie about the collaborative process she had with New-Ark, but there are lots of producers/artists who use uncredited musicians and writers, but to me, as long as the final product is dope that’s all that matters. 20 years later, The Miseducation is still dope.”
“When I interviewed Lauryn, she had just found out that she was pregnant with her second child. Meanwhile, that same day, I had gone earlier to her mother’s house and had met little Zion, so when I heard that song ["To Zion"], which also features the great Carlos Santana on guitar, it stayed with me. Although I’m a huge hip-hop fan, the songs on The Miseducation that are my favorites are the soulful joints, especially ‘When It Hurts so Bad’ and the D’Angelo duet ‘Nothing Even Matters.’ With both D and James Poyser supplying the spooky Fender Rhodes, that was quite haunting.”
“I remember having a lot of access to Lauryn. I interviewed her mom, went with her to a meeting with director Joel Schumacher, who wanted to cast her in Dreamgirls and can remember just how happy and positive she was during that time. My homeboy, Mark Batson, a keyboard player who works with Dr. Dre, came out to Lauryn’s house that same day to discuss being her tour director, and he and I often reflect on how magical that afternoon was… Lauryn was very cool, but she knew what she wanted. I would be lying if I said I knew the impact that album had on the world of music, but I wasn’t surprised. Twenty years later, The Miseducation is still inspiring young artists of all races because it’s a timeless album that still sounds fresh.”
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