Songs by Theme
About Lauryn Hill
Liner Notes: Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
by Dionne Bennett
“Herein lies the opportunity of the Negro artist as a world reformer.”
Carter G. Woodson - The Miseducation of the Negro (1933)
“Say What? Hiphop Started out in The Heart
Yo, Now Everybody Tryin’ to Chart”
Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Lauryn Hill is an artistic innovator whose creative labor has performed an essential and unique role in imagining and inventing a new and necessary cultural space for Hiphop. It is a soul space, a space that Martin Luther King Jr. might have called a “beloved community.” It is a desperately desired world made of, by, and for Hiphop culture and the people who have always loved it. It is also an invitation to enter and inhabit that world for those whose ears, minds, and cultural sensibilities would be educated to love Hiphop by Lauryn Hill’s first solo album. Make no mistake, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) ‘is’ a concept album about love and freedom. It represents a secret covenant with the people who loved Hiphop for years before the album’s release and a welcoming embrace to the people who learned to love Hiphop culture through and due to the education of Miseducation. It remains a transformative and redemptive cultural event in the history of Hiphop, contemporary music, and popular culture. It was also a media phenomenon that renewed and reframed discourses about music and culture and expanded and exposed existing discourses about art, ethics, and politics, including the politics of feminism, gender, race, family, community, and nation. However, beyond – perhaps, even, despite – its record-breaking successes and social significance, Miseducation is an album characterized by artistic depth, not just in terms of its quality of moral resonance but, also, in terms of its musical, cultural, and political wholeness.
At first listen, it may seem that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an album about popular notions of romantic love. Throughout the album a teacher, performed by poet-politician Ras J. Baraka, interviews precocious and thoughtful children about their theories of love. One student answers his questions about love by sighing, “Looooove…” The entire class laughs, and the teacher says “Yo! Yo! He’s about to give us a dissertation, the way he said THAT! Go ahead, break it down, break it down!” With every song, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill carefully creates her musical dissertation on love, re-educating the emotions and the aesthetics of her listener as she “breaks down” love of all kinds: from the private to the political, the artistic to the cultural, and from the erotic to the esoteric.
By invoking Carter G. Woodson’s classic Miseducation of the Negro (1933) in the title, Hill both affirms her historic connection to black people as a group and suggests that she herself has been re-educating herself and us. Carter G. Woodson’s work is a cautionary tale, and Miseducation suggests that Lauryn Hill has absorbed many of its painful lessons. In return, she encourages us to learn love and learn to love in a new way that, to paraphrase Woodson, avoids imitating what others do, but is instead about loving in ways that result in "great achievements, unusual insight" and the ability to imagine and hear love as it spits and sings in a new voice. Miseducation’s most powerful love message is directed to, for, and through Hiphop music itself. The album’s legacy is an enduring record of one of Hiphop’s great love stories and of Hiphop’s broken heart, a heart tended to by The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’s honored promise of creating Hiphop music defined by devotion to the cultures that created it, a heart broken anew by what some interpret as the culture’s betrayal of that promise.
Miseducation becomes a contemplative rumination about love and freedom as it teaches lessons from at least two different perspectives that evolve from both of these elements. It explores both emotional love and cultural love while exploring and exposing the journey to find freedom within both of them. It interrogates the emotional politics of love in intimate relationships. Hill explores how dynamics and conflicts can produce or prevent the freedom to love, particularly as men and women struggle to love themselves and each other while also participating in political struggles against freedom-destroying forces like racism, sexism, and classism. Miseducation centralizes the love experiences of women through a lyrical analysis of how vulnerability and strength, sex, family, trauma, ambition, spirituality, success, and other themes have affected Hill as a woman artist. By centralizing emotion in general, and love in particular, on an album that is unabashedly a Hiphop album, Hill invites the theme of love into the center of Hiphop’s lyrical discourse.
This invitation to include love may have ultimately, and ironically, been more liberating to men and male artists than it has been for women. Artists who may have found the vision of masculinity and femininity promoted within commercial ‘90s ‘Gangsta Rap’ to be too limiting, found that Miseducation opened, re-opened, or kept open emotional doors within Hiphop music, such as those opened previously by artists like Tupac and Nas, and opened them wide enough for emcees of all genders and backgrounds to rhyme their humanity through Hiphop in complex and nuanced ways. While many hoped that this would create more opportunities for women emcees, nearly twenty years later many more men than women are supported by commercial Hiphop and more of those men than women have been able to explore their emotional lives as part of their Hiphop careers. Miseducation¸ through its analysis of different kinds of love, challenged listeners to recognize love as a politically and socially meaningful subject of lyrical discourse, as well as an emotionally compelling site of creativity. Miseducation, thus, centralized emotional consciousness and emotional politics – psychocultural dynamics where feeling, cognition, introspection, and power meet – as viable components of Hiphop.
Miseducation, by presenting R&B and Hiphop as equal and equally eloquent partners in a musical dance throughout the album contributed along with its predecessors, to the process of turning the dialogue between Hiphop and R&B into a permanent and intimate musical conversation, one that continues to define both art forms. Moreover, Miseducation, like Missy Elliot’s Supa Dupa Fly, demanded that women be heard on both sides of the musical exchange instead of being segregated into a “singing only” island. Missy Elliott would remark on this in the record “Not Tonight” (1997) which featured, Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, Left Eye, and Angie Martinez by rhyming “You ain't gonna use me to just be singin hooks/What I look like?/Patti LaBelle or somebody?” Elliott was not disrespecting LaBelle but was critiquing the common practice in many songs of only including women as singers, not as emcees, a practice which continues to this day as women emcees continue to struggle for recognition of their significant talents. The following year, Miseducation would echo and validate the legitimacy of Elliot’s critique with an entire album of evidence that women’s skills as emcees deserve recognition and celebration. The R&B dynamics that were sustained vocally and instrumentally throughout the album did not only contribute to the album’s exquisite musical sound, they also ensured that the skills of women emcees would actually be heard within and beyond the Hiphop world.
Because it asserted Hiphop Music as a uniquely exquisite medium of emotional expression, a role previously reserved for genres like Soul and Folk music, Miseducation became a source of emotional liberation for anyone who crossed the bridge to Hiphop music and culture. As stated above, due to the gender dynamics of Hiphop, Miseducation also became a source of emotional liberation for men. This is culturally significant. Most cultures throughout the world, including all American cultures, are emotionally repressive for men, in some cases to the point of emotional dehumanization and devastation. Because Hiphop music achieved recognition as a valid and important medium for expressing masculinity, Miseducation’s success helped transform Hiphop into a valid and important medium for expressing emotion. As a result, Miseducation, along with a few other albums and artists, helped create a Hiphop culture that can serve, though it does not always do so, as a safe, sanctioned, significant, and sustaining space of emotional expression for both women and men. It is a space that men need every bit as much as women do and it is a space that, in recent years, male artists like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake, and others have both explored and expanded. That so few women Hiphop artists have been given the same opportunities as men to be heard and respected on multiple levels, emotional and others, remains a cultural and artistic tragedy.
The combination of the Hill’s emceeing and singing alongside the contributions of remarkable artists to the album’s exquisite instrumentation turned Miseducation into an education unto itself. Its display of the cultural wealth of African Diasporic musical forms including Hiphop, R&B, Reggae, Classic Soul, Neo-Soul, Doo-Wop, Jazz, etc. did not merely represent those forms, it synthesized and harmonized them in new ways. By doing so, it celebrated them as a performance of cultural love and aesthetic devotion. It transformed the way many people heard Hiphop either by forcing them to really listen to it for the first time or by inspiring them to hear Hiphop and the other musical genres on the album in new ways, with a new “ear,” a “miseducated” ear. Miseducation’s sound was a symbol of the cultural freedom of Hiphop, a freedom that rejected narrow musical boundaries and embraced multiple sounds, voices, heritages and audiences.
“Some Negro with [a]esthetic appreciation would construct from collected fragments of Negro music a grand opera that would move humanity to repentance.”
Carter G. Woodson –The Miseducation of the Negro (1933)
“I was just a little girl, skinny legs, a press and curl
My mother always thought I'd be a star”
Lauryn Hill – “Every Ghetto, Every City” – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Lauryn Hill has always been unique. She made her television debut at thirteen on It’s Showtime at the Apollo where she was booed but not broken. As a young actress, she appeared in the off-Broadway Hiphop romantic comedy Club XII (1990) – a Hiphop re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – with Hiphop pioneer MC Lyte; on the soap opera As the World Turns, and in the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) with Whoopi Goldberg. Her academic performance was also stellar, and she briefly attended Columbia University. In addition, she had been working since high school with a musical group, initially named the Tranzlator Crew, with her classmate Prakazrel “Pras” and their friend Wyclef Jean. The three renamed the group The Fugees in 1992 and together they would record two albums. Their second album, The Score (1996) was critically recognized and received two Grammy awards, becoming one of Hiphop’s best-selling albums. The Fugees combined their talents as artists with social justice work and became industry leaders as activists, honoring Hiphop’s early mission of demonstrating the power of the relationship between art and politics. In 1997, the artists separated and began performing solo projects, Hill began to work on Miseducation.
The 1998 release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill¸ by Ruffhouse Records and Columbia Records, was also unique and remains remarkable in the history of popular music due to its extraordinary level of artistic achievement and its ensuing levels of critical and commercial success. The album was performed, written, and produced by Lauryn Hill. Though others later made legal claims aout contributions to the album’s production, even they concede the significance of Hill’s overall artistic vision and performance. Nas, fifteen years after its release, explains: “it’s a timeless record, pure music. And that’s what we don’t hear anymore. She didn’t have to fit in with any style, she was the new style, and it’s a positive style.”
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is properly credited with exceptional accomplishments even when the album is assessed in a contemporary context. Some are undisputed facts. In 1998, Miseducation debuted at number one on Billboard and stayed on the chart for over 80 weeks. When it sold over 420,000 copies during its first week, it broke the record for sales by any woman artist in history. It was number one on both the American and American R&B Album Chart. In the United States, the album went platinum 8 times, meaning it has sold over 8 million copies nationwide. The album also went platinum in ten other countries, rose to the top ten in a more than a dozen countries, and has sold over 19 million copies globally.
In 1999, Lauryn Hill became the first Hiphop artist to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and remains one of only two Hiphop artists to do so in the history of the awards - and the only one by a solo or female artist in the genre. The only other album so honored was OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003). Hill was nominated for ten Grammies, ultimately winning five and becoming the first woman to attain this number of nominations and wins in a single night. Her record has since been exceeded by two other women, Beyoncé and Adele, but never by another woman Hiphop artist. No other Hiphop artist exceeded her record until 2016 when Kendrick Lamar set a new record for To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), which was nominated for but did not win Album of the Year. References to Grammy awards are not intended to represent the very subjective institution of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who hand out the awards, as objective, accurate, or even as critically reliable. However, the Grammy awards are still useful measures of affirmation and acceptance by both the recording industry and influential music critics, functioning as a way to assess the historical role of an album in relationship to major musical institutions.
Miseducation has continued to be listed among the greatest albums ever recorded both within and beyond Hiphop. The United States Library of Congress selected The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as one of 25 recordings to be inducted into the “Library of Congress National Recording Registry.” It was the only Hiphop album to be included in the 2014 registry and one of only five Hiphop recordings in the registry that had been released in the previous thirty-five years. While Miseducation’s success represented the highest level of critical, cultural and commercial achievement for the time, it was not the first artistically or economically validated Hiphop album. Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990), A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (1991), and Nas’ Time is Illmatic (1994), and Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly (1997) all achieved varied combinations of those two forms of validation. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s I’m the DJ, He’s the Rapper (1989), was the first to win a Grammy Award in the newly created Rap Performance category, the first Grammy category created for Hiphop music. I’m the DJ, He’s the Rapper went triple-platinum, and was essential in establishing Hiphop Music’s status as a “crossover” genre. These albums and others laid claim to meaningful critical and/or commercial recognition and, thereby, helped create the path to success that Miseducation travelled.
When one considers the battles for respect and recognition that Hiphop artists continue to have with the music industry, it is understandable that Miseducation’s success would rise as a cultural fortress. Though, as mentioned above, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were the first to win a Grammy Award in the Rap Performance category in 1989, their achievement was announced – off camera - before the award show and their fans and the wider audience did not see them receive the award. This led to a Grammy boycott by many Hiphop artists that year. Currently artists, like Jay-Z continue to refuse to support the Grammys because of disagreements over the treatment of the Hiphop category. While a Grammy does not necessarily represent artistic, cultural and political excellence in Hiphop culture, it does create economic opportunities and audiences. Miseducation’s achievements were record-breaking, simultaneous, international, and culturally transformative as it transcended racial, ethnic and class divides and was embraced by and celebrated within and beyond the United States. The impact of the interdynamic workings of these variables is important to understanding the album’s effectiveness as a cultural fortress. Because the variables worked together within a single historical moment, the album became a form of valuable and indisputable iconic evidence of both the artistic validity and the economic viability of Hiphop evidence that became undeniable facts of culture and industry.
“[The Negro] should be deeply concerned with the [a]esthetic possibilities of his situation. Why do we go away from home to find what we already have on hand?”
Carter G. Woodson –The Miseducation of the Negro (1933)
“It's funny how money change a situation
Miscommunication leads to complication
My emancipation don't fit your equation”
Lauryn Hill –“Lost Ones” – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
When Whitney Houston, who presented the 1998 Grammy album of the year award, slowly opened the envelope and read the winner, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” she seemed to be more excited about the album’s win than Hill herself and shouted “Yes!” and “Amen!” in congratulatory celebration. When Lauren Hill stood in front of the Grammy audience and leaned into the microphone to accept the award she stated: “This is crazy because this is Hiphop Music!” This was a statement of fact and a challenge to Grammy categories that Miseducation is a self-proclaimed Hiphop album as defined by Hill and her peers. Moreover, that identity matters and informs the significance of its success. Despite the predominance of Hiphop performance throughout the album, this categorization could have limited its recognition as a Hiphop album. It was one of the defining moments in the history of music and in the history of Hiphop culture. Lauryn Hill proudly defined and claimed Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as “A Hiphop Album” to an international audience of millions, a cultural movement leaped forward.
Despite, or perhaps because of her insistence on the album’s Hiphop identity, the aesthetic confluence of Hiphop and R&B on Miseducation is significant both to the sound of the album, to its impact, and to Hill’s talents as an artist. For example, her claim that “Loving you is like a battle, and we both end up with scars” on “Ex-Factor” could be interpreted as a kind of homage to songs like Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way,” (1968) which was written by her sister, Carolyn Franklin, who laments “Ain't no way for me to love you, if you won't let me.” In fact, Hill would write the song “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” (1998) in which an older woman advises a younger one about love, for Franklin. While Miseducation does feature traditional romantic themes, Hill is also following in Franklin’s footsteps by imparting her knowledge about love, and the love one needs to survive, to the next generation. The weaving together of R&B and Hiphop with such sustained intricacy was an essential constructive component of all of the bridges that Miseducation built. Because many consider R&B, even now, to be a “less threatening” musical genre than Hiphop, the presence of R&B music and musical aesthetics on the album may have made Miseducation in particular and Hiphop in general less threatening to potentially hostile or unreceptive listeners. More importantly, to listeners who were open to but had not been initiated into Hiphop culture, R&B increased the likelihood that they would actually hear the album and that they would have been cognitively educated, by years of R&B and soul music, to appreciate and understand it. For those who already loved Hiphop and R&B, their combination would have made both historical and cultural sense.
In addition to the significant R&B influences on the album, Miseducation celebrates reggae and Caribbean musical aesthetics throughout the album. This recognition is also essential to its recognition as a Hiphop album because of the contributions of Caribbean-American Hiphop pioneers in the development of Hiphop culture. Finally, Miseducation also contributed to the introduction of Neo-Soul as a musical genre. Lauryn Hill was one of a group of African American artists, many of whom were women, to bring Neo-Soul to national and international airwaves. Artists including Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dionne Farris, Lalah Hathaway, Angie Stone, Maxwell and D’Angelo also occupied this genre. In fact D’Angelo performed a sublime duet with Hill on Miseducation’s “Nothing Even Matters.” Miseducation may have contributed as much to the transformation of “Neo-Soul” into “popular” music, as it did to the popularization of Hiphop music. In the music video for Miseducation’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” – whose title alone indicates an homage to earlier music – a split screen presents “New York City: 1967” and “New York City: 1998” which features both an classic R&B and a contemporary Hiphop version of Lauryn Hill and a New York City neighborhood community. This visual technique works with the music to present a celebration of both musical forms and cultural periods as well as a critique of how problematic gender dynamics, the subject of the song, persist across time. Because “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, was the debut single, and debut video for the album, the song and video instructed audiences that Miseducation was an album that acknowledged the influence of earlier musical traditions. Through its music videos, particularly “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and through music on the entire album, Miseducation honored its black musical heritage so that when the album received unprecedented attention and acclaim, that heritage was also affirmed.
“I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth
Who won't accept deception, instead of what is truth…
Let's love ourselves, and we can't fail
To make a better situation
Tomorrow, our seeds will grow
All we need is dedication”
– Lauryn Hill – “Everything Is Everything” – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill brought knowledge to the planet about the power, beauty, and love in Hiphop Music, Art and Culture. It changed the way Hiphop spit, sang, rapped and rhymed as it invented new ways for Hiphop to move, move through, mold, and remake the world of music and culture. It transformed the face, voice, body, feeling, space, and destiny of not just Hiphop music, but all popular music. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill made room. It made room for women in Hiphop music and culture, and for women and men to perform emotional freedom through Hiphop. Miseducation made room for the African Diasporic living legacy of oral poetry, Soul, Reggae, R&B and Jazz, artistic forms to retake center stage - without which the art of Hiphop music could never have been created in the first place. It made room for the reunion of conscious and commercial Hiphop, a bond whose breaking had been mourned and whose mending in and through the Miseducation reminded everyone of the value – cultural and economic – of bringing Hiphop’s progressive messages to “the mainstream” and forcing that stream to both widen its range and change its course. It made room for Hiphop in the world of what would become, in part because of its influence, the new “mainstream” music and made it impossible for mainstream culture to move forward without Hiphop as one of its most powerful and defining flows aesthetically, culturally, and economically. Miseducation made room by issuing a call to the world, and the world’s response was to move - to move minds, bodies and souls into the room Miseducation made into a home. It turned out that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill created a cultural home, for anybody and everybody who believes in the power of love, art, and Hiphop. We live there now. We will never leave.