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.
“Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain’t getting no higher,” she sings on “Superstar.” With Wyclef and Pras gettin’ jiggy with their Puffinator songwriting machine (and what’s up with Clef’s Clintonian Blaze gunwaving denial?), Hill is left guarding the vault of the Fugees original ideals. “My rhymes is heavy/Like the mind of Sister Betty [Shabazz],” she raps, a new mom audaciously aiming for — at only 23! — the kind of Righteous Universal Mother iconhood which Queen Latifah first hinted at. Such a persona allows for no cracks in her armor; she must be an invincible moral machine. That can lead to didacticism at times, and it’s probably not a great idea to chastise the ladies for “showing off they ass cause they thinking it’s the trend” (from “Doo Wop”) if you’re planning to pose in nothing but metallic paint for Details. Then again, when was the last time a catchy pop song broke down 20 years of fucked-up gender politics, and cared enough to wonder “how you gon’ win when you ain’t right within?”
Hill’s lyrics are at their detailed best when she’s angry, or indulging in Biblical-scale ego trips (“taking over areas in Aquarius/Running red lights with my 10,000 chariots”). You can hear tangible crushed-bug pain in her voice in break-up songs like “Ex-Factor,” but “tried/lied/died/cried” cliches keep you at arm’s length, like Hill can only bear to show so much vulnerability, so much of the drama deep inside. By the last song you realize you’ve heard her entire life story, from childhood to childbirth, but you don’t really know her at all. –Sia Michel
There is one song that moves me on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: “I Used To Love Him,” a self-explanatory duet with Mary J Blige. That Lauryn, like Mary (fuck it, like me, like my sister K., like a lot of us), natural goddess, superior rhyme stylist, she possessed of too many talents and God-given blessings to list, should have experienced the kind of deep pain she has, speaks volumes about men. Or rather a particular kind of man. All right, a very specific kind of behavior found in this particular kind of man.
Have you ever fallen for a thief? The kind of masked man who, as sister Alice Walker put it, eats hearts. “Finds heart meat delicious, but not rare.” Lauryn knows of whom I speak. He was the ocean — she was the sand. After your senses have been dulled, your vision blurred, after sacrificing too much and giving all your power, after making attempts to close wounds so deep and wide they threaten to bloody your very life, you’re left with but one question: How could I let this happen? I like to lie about it. When a new friend asked the other day if I’d ever been in love, I said without hesitation, No. Cuz you know? Fuck him. And his fucking mirrors and smoke. Does he deserve a place in my history? Lauryn wrestles with her home invader’s not-so-distant ghost on practically every track. How could I have been so naive, she asks? After I took your abuse, played your mind games, wrote your rhymes (“…now you get it”), spun the press… After all that what I get is a blade in the back?
Because she truly seems to try to live in truth she is constantly praying aloud for the ability to become forgiveness. The evolutionary resolution on “I Used To Love Him” is about giving her life back to the Creator. And it’s a return that’s neither insincere nor sacrificial. “I don’t now!” she shouts convincingly over Mary’s vocals. And you want to believe her. But you’re mad all over again at this brotha, the one with all the potential, the one who indeed betrayed his very self in betraying her. Because Lauryn, being all the woman she is (even at 23) could have helped him actualize who it is she has to believe he really wanted to be.
That Lauryn in this very personal solo debut should use her work to work this love affair out is justice. Though I love “You Just Lost One” and “Final Hour,” straight hip-hop joints that remind us she’s one of the nicest MCs ever, period, and like very much her song with D’Angelo, the sexy “Nothing Even Matters,” the album as a whole is a little heartbreaking. Lauryn exercised an enormous amount of control over this album. And I’m for that Patrice Rushen kind of control coming from a sister. But Hill doesn’t have the musical ability of a Patrice Rushen, and some of her best ideas are only semi-realized. Perfection from people capable of perfection is a fair thing to want. Wanting less would make them less. But as I pray for L, and her name is beneath a white candle on my altar, I will pray that she not only find the kind of happiness the one with blood on his teeth promised her, but that she find a producer, a musical partner from whom she will take direction, someone in whose hands she can put the most true part of herself, a collaborator she can trust, the way she once trusted Clef. –Dream Hampton
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.
What makes The Miseducation majestic is the seamlessness with which she travels her realm within any given song — none of that “here’s my rap song, here’s my soul song” clank which makes a lot of records (the Fugees’ included) sound stupidly incoherent. On tracks like “Lost Ones” and “Doo Wop,” the motion itself becomes a whole new flavor in your ear: the sound of anything-can-happen. The mercuriality of shape, its turn from tired structures, breeds new forms — not Roni Size’s but KISS radio’s, the first soulful response to the anti-narrative flux of electronica, with plush melody and home-brewed rhymes to boot. L’s boogie is complicated.
And for the most part, she’s best that way. I forgive how “To Zion” goes gaga over goo-goo, but the one-dimensionality of its stylings is still pretty dull, and the joke of the rhythm track (Little Drummer Boy — d’ya get it?) doesn’t survive retelling. If anything can bring Lauryn Hill down it’s this very God Bless the Childishness. As organic as she makes it sound, it must be a struggle to embody so many traditions. At the end of the record, as she slips into “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Tell Him,” you can feel her yearning for the simplicity and clear emotional timbre of yesteryear’s jazz/pop standards — the same urge that brought her to Roberta Flack back in the day. Like a lot of Lauryn fans, I’m happy to have Pras and Wyclef shut up. But I also want Billie Holiday to stop calling her name, to leave her be as a brilliant synthesist of black music, a one-woman anti-diaspora for the post-millennial funk. –Jane Dark