By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Hip-hop Soul Merchant
A handful of modern soul musicians exist who, per KRS One's maxim, aren't doing hip-hop but are hip-hop. To these digital holyrollers we owe the best parts of D'Angelo's Brown Sugar, Erykah Badu's Baduizm, Me'Shell Ndegeocello's Plantation Lullabies and Peace Beyond Passion, and Lauryn Hill's "The Sweetest Thing" and her long-awaited, deeply anticipated solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
But Hill is a further rarity: a singer who can rhyme competently enough to satisfy subcommercial hip-hop's ghetto realness gatekeepers; an MC who wouldn't have to lip-synch her way out of an appearance with your church choir. Her curriculum vitae -- Fugees superstar, community activist, undergraduate Columbia history major, and child actor (see Sister Act 2) -- insures we'll soon be seeing her on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and with one bambino out the oven, and another seven months along the way, her future as fertile progenitor of the Robert Nesta Marley bloodline seems secure.
The Miseducation's title does prepare you for Hill's sometimes nasty pedantic streak, but not for those precocious and unriveting classroom skits that make continuous play a chore for those who prefer their hip-hop without homilies. We read PC Hill as antidote to Foxy Brown and Li'l Kim: hardworking, kinky-headed Mother of Civilization to their sleazy, fried-died Whores of Babylon. Except Hill now seems the badder girl by tabloid-feminism standards, if only by virtue of being way pregnant at album-release time, nearly a taboo state of affairs here in professional Hoochieville.
Hill wouldn't be a true hip-hop soul merchant if she didn't deal in a little mercenary star-currency trading, but inviting D'Angelo on board for the duet on "Nothing Even Matters" is roughly equivalent to requesting Miles Davis's upstaging presence on your Porgy and Bess album. This in light of Hill's overemoting to compensate for the erotic leakage she allowed the butta-man to spill on the track. And Carlos Santana is vastly underutilized on the tear-jerking "To Zion," where Mama Hill magically wrings pathos and affirmation out of celebrity mommyhood. (The pitiful but lengthier Santana imitation that precedes on "Ex-Factor" damn near screams dis.)
And Hill wouldn't be hip-hop if she didn't have an enemies list: the feud-fomenting suspected swipes at Foxy Brown (check out "Lost Ones," where her madcap raggamuffin flow should come with a neck brace) and Wyclef Jean (see "I Used To Love Him"), for example. Of the straight-up hip-hop tracks here, my favorite is "Every Ghetto, Every City" if only because it's got that prolix urgency MC'ing was made for and because I'm a sucker for slangily knowing songs about the old neighborhood -- from Hill's to Raekwon's to the desaturated Bronx of Don DeLillo's Underworld. The is-it-live-or-is-it-Eventide-Akai-Pro-Tools production wickedly splits the difference between old-school funkmanship and now-school cloning devices.
Not without provocation, but mostly because she's black, female, and be-atch-on-heels rich, race-woman Hill will probably be accused of being too serious, or a two-babies-out-of-wedlock goody-two-shoes calling the kettle loose, and not much fun, qualities we all admire in bitches with dicks, but y'all need to just dead that, alright, because you and I both know how loudly you'll applaud when The Miseducation's soulful hip-hop goes quadruple titanium, breaking up, however temporarily, the carnivalesque and patriarchal stranglehold Mr. Combs and Mr. Jean now have over your MTV, your BET, your poor, tired masses struggling to stay tuned. --Greg Tate
Could "Every Ghetto, Every City" be a greater song? I don't think so. Though it has one of the simplest shapes on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's got much action. My favorite part is how, while she waxes nostalgic about back when " 'Self Destruction' record drops/And everybody's name was Muslim," a background track is busy annotating: "children playing, women producing," it says, crazy high-pitched. And therein lies the beautiful doubling: we see her as the playing child within the song and the woman producer outside the text, all at once. Even as "Every Ghetto" grooves through its stoopside reminiscing, it catches up the political and musical history that got us all to this spot. And blows it up.
The history goes deeper. "I try to keep it civilized like Menelik," she drops in the midst of "Forgive Them Father." Sheesh -- I guess reports of her miseducation have been greatly exaggerated. But it can't be mere check-me-outism, any more than the 19th-century Ethiopian honcho in question was a mere proto-Selassie. Harnessing whirlwinds of force and reason, Menilek I (I'm assuming she means big poppa) unified an array of culturally segregated groups whose historical relationships were so complex that unification should by all rights have been impossible. He was the synthesist of northern Africa.
Lauryn I (she loves it when we call her big momma) deserves the same respect in music -- she's a queen hell unifier. It was Missy's breakthrough: before her, years of r&bÐhip-hop confluence had always more or less mimicked the blunt graftwork of Jody Watley & Rakim's "Friends." Supa Dupa Fly was the first record I can remember where you just couldn't tell if it was r&b or hip-hop or whatever, and you didn't really care. But Lauryn's freak flag flies over more peoples than Missy's, melting in reggae and funk and '70s soul. This isn't country music; it's a goddamned nation state.