By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
A Critical Confab on the Year's Most Ambitious and Multifaceted Debut
Sound, Style, and Steel
Lauryn Hill has given birth once more. This new child may be more lament and redemption song than soft skin and baby chuckles, but it is a child of Lauryn's soul nonetheless. Perhaps the point seems obvious. Perhaps not. But Lauryn's children are inextricably linked because her literal child served as a catalyst for her metaphysical one, resulting in a record that may make the rest of pop culture's denizens her creatures as well.
Lauryn has long kept most of her demons and delights bottled away from our greedy, public perusal. Her work with the Fugees, for the most part, had a service agenda. She was a soldier in a wearisome, albeit successful, war against hip-hop status quo, a fighter determined to maintain a place for thought, political consciousness, and good-time urges. Rewarding work, yes. But work that left little room for a young woman to be, well, a young woman.
So if The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill seems urgent and overpowering, that's okay. And if the excruciatingly personal nature of songs like the dynamic "Ex-Factor" make you squirm, or grin with voyeuristic glee, that's okay too. Lord knows I'd normally be the last one to evoke that tired exhale metaphor, but Lauryn's been drawing breath for a while now. She's due.
Miseducation is part confessional, part celebration, and part act of defiance, with all the thematic power that such juxtapositions suggest. And it is at least as significant for what it is as for what it's not. A record that redefines hip-hop without a focus on rhyming, that most hip-hop of signifiers. A record that opts to take a more personal, and ultimately more satisfying, lyrical approach than the didactic, weighty, change-the-world course you might expect from an artist of Lauryn's sociopolitical sensibilities.
Miseducation also possesses a distinctive and potent triple threat: sound, style, and steel. Sonically, this record is like nothing you've heard, not recently anyway. Its tapestry of warm, live bass, energized drum play, and horn, guitar, and keyboard ornamentation utterly refuses the hi-gloss production sheen favored by many a big-time act. And don't let the soulful palette fool you -- this here is a ghetto thing. Just check the album's mix -- resounding low end, unadorned vocal tracks -- and composition: the stuttered use of Raekwon's "Ice Cream" on the Mary J. Blige assisted "I Used To Love Him," the gut-shifting bassline from Wu-Tang's "Can It All Be So Simple" on "Ex-Factor." Ironically, Lauryn's record may be the truest representation of the Fugees' original "Booger Basement" steez, an aesthetic that reveled in blunt, basic soundscapes.
The summation of style is simple: she sings like she rhymes and rhymes like she sings. That means unexpected phrasings that dip and bend. And if technical perfection ends up sacrificed for feel and emotive content, so be it. But the steel of this record remains its most captivating factor. That steel can be tungsten-like in strength, as with the resilient "Nothing Even Matters." But it can also cut with a serrated edge, like the chilling evisceration that occurs on "Lost Ones": But if a thing test me run fi me gun/Can't take a threat to me newborn son. Hello? Don't be lulled by the I've-been-so-hurt-but-now-I'm-all-good talk. This is a fierce woman. --Selwyn Seyfu Hinds
You'd call your own grandma a bitch before you'd call Lauryn Hill one, meaning no one quite knows what to make of Ms. L-Boogie. Over the past few years, women-in-hip-hop dialogue has stalled in the "Foxy & Kim: Post-Feminist Geniuses or Stank Hos?" debate. We've grown accustomed to teenage rappers in fright wigs and furry pink bikinis throwing irons at hotel maids; we love them for their fallibility, for their gilded gladiator outfits, for the feeling that girls just-like-us (albeit 4.7 times freakier) got over big. In a tradition in which rap stars (like altrockers) are worshipped because of, not in spite of, their contradictions and Achilles' heels, Hill is an anomaly -- the elegantly beautiful, musically gifted class brain, the stern voice over your shoulder telling you to put those booty shorts and Bee Gees samples down, you low-expectations-having-muthafucka. She's almost forbiddingly perfect, but so thanks-to-god about it that it's impossible to begrudge her genetically engineered superiority over your press-on nails self.
Which makes the sense of dream-girl disenfranchisement on her solo debut more affecting than alienating. Ostensibly a song-cycle about love in the time of bluntedness, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill also chronicles the coming-of-age of a golden girl who's always outshone everyone else, who's had her own table at the hip-hop boys' club, and who sold 18 million Fugees records only to find out that the same old gender traps still apply. "My emancipation don't fit your equation," she raps on the opening song, "Lost Ones." Like, if she can't have the most cake, who can? She still gets dissed by men who treat their Timberlands better, still finds guys "playing young Lauryn like she dumb," or at least "trying to pull strings like Geppetto." Lest she be perceived as yet another shrink-wrapped diva robot, she insisted on writing, producing, and arranging her record herself (like special guest D'Angelo) -- and faced someone-ghost- produced-her-songs rumors (Kurt, maybe?) just the same.