Five ½ years later, it's easy to overlook what an accomplishment The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was. Not only is it easy to forget in light of the millions of sales and the million Grammy awards she won, but also because of the cloudy aftermath, which has seen Lauryn shun her celebrity and basically melt down before the whole world.
When an album is universally hailed as a classic-it's hard years down the line to look at the album in it's proper perspective. I wonder how all the people who are praising Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will feel about the album five years from now. The backlash may be already evident, since you can't fart without hearing Hey Ya! or The Way You Move. At any rate, sometimes it takes some effort to look back and look at a work of art for what it was before everyone and their grandmother started fawning over it.
Anyway, by the time this album began to take shape, Lauryn Hill was already a multi-media superstar. The young New Jersey native initially tasted fame as an actress, appearing on the TV soap As The World Turns and the movie Sister Act 2. Turning her focus to music (and balancing it with her Ivy League status as a Columbia U student), she formed The Fugees with her homies Wyclef & Pras. They released their first album, Blunted On Reality in 1993 to the sound of no hands clapping, although the single Nappy Heads was a minor hit. Despite a lot of noise from the media, who took immediate notice of Hill to the extent of her two bandmates, they followed up a little over two years later with The Score which became a smash, goosed by covers of Killing Me Softly and No Woman, No Cry. Wyclef was actually the first to branch out with his own project, the double platinum Carnival. His album featured contributions from Lauryn & Pras, but somewhere between there and Miseducation, things went south.
Rumors have flown back & forth for years about the true nature of Wyclef & Lauryn's relationship, with just about everyone except the two principles agreeing that Clef & l-bpoogie were an item, even though Wyclef was married-to another woman. Either way, there's question as to whether Miseducation is basically a huge middle finger to Wyclef Jean, although there are obvious references to their relationship all over this album-whether their relationship was platonic or not. Either way, this is an album that jumps all over every square on the emotional map, from bitterness to righteous anger to subtle romanticism to defiance. Despite the fact that the album is not perfect, this is pure soul laid bare on plastic (or vinyl, or tape).
Probably the most notable thiing about this album is that it bucked every trend that popular hip-hop & R&B trafficked in at the time of the album's released. While there are guest singers, there are no guest MC's or producers (although the question of whether Lauryn truly wrote and produced this album herself was brought up by some of her collaborators and eventually settled out of court), and the sound is fairly organic, cobmbining equal parts soul, hip-hop and reggae with real instruments (there are no obvious samples on the album).
Some folks rap OK and sing OK , some folks rap well and sing OK, some folks sing well and rap OK. Lauryn, to date, is the only artist who is equally gifted as a vocalist and as an MC. Fans of everyone from Lyte to Latifah to Rah Digga to Bahamadia may argue with me, but for my money, Lauryn is hip-hop's most lyrically skilled female MC. This is most evidenced on the album's scathing opening track, Lost Ones, which is no doubt a phenomenally angry open letter to Wyclef (now you wanna bawl out for separation/Tarnish my image in a confrontation), and a firm reminder that she will NOT under any circumstances be returning to The Fugees. It's a more dramatic dear John letter than any traditional love song. She attacks further on the dark, Wu-Tang sounding Final Hour, and Superstar, which I initially thought was a Puff Daddy diss, but I may be wrong.
Ex-Factor may not be about 'Clef, but whoever inspired this song hurt Lauryn REAL bad. This swaying midtempo ballad contains some impassioned wailing by Lauryn (no one loves you more than me/and no one ever will) and ends with a fiery guitar solo reminiscent of Carlos Santana who, lo and behold, appears on the next track, To Zion, which lays bare Lauryn's love for her child. It's both touching and defiant in the face of the naysayers who implored Lauryn to think of her career before conceivably risking it by having a baby.
Mary J. Blige shows some serious chemistry with Lauryn as they trade verses and then lines on the girlfriend, you didn't need him anyway anthem I Used To Love Him, which chops up a tasty sample of Raekwon's Ice Cream, while D'Angelo turns the lights down real low for the sumptuous romantic ballad Nothing Even Matters, a track that brings back the glory days of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway and remains the last good thing that D'angelo's done thus far. There's even more goodness to come on the punchy Forgive Them Father, sort of a 90's version of The O'Jays Backstabbers,where Lauryn is joined by 80's dancehall reggae superstar Shelly Thunder
Lest anyone think that Lauryn spends just about all her time being extremely serious (more on that later), she pops up with Every Ghetto, Every City, a joyful Stevie Wonder-inspired tune that takes us back to Lauryn's New Jersey childhood. After 10 tracks of indignation or shoe-gazing, it's nice to hear Lauryn loosen up and reminisce about happy events, for once...and the interpolation of the Welcome Back, Kotter theme don't hurt, either.
After the album unofficially closes up, Lauryn takes us back to the days of doo-wop with an unlisted covers of Frankie Valli's Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You and a smoothed-out remix of her Love Jones single The Sweetest Thing The Valli cover offers proof that L-Boogie is a fantastic vocalist even when not singing her own deeply personal songs.
Not to say Miseducation is a total success. Since the days of the Fugees', Lauryn has had a bit of a self-righteous streak, something that has become more apparent with each passing recording. There's a bit of condescension in some of this album's songs, most notably the smash Doo Wop (That Thing) on which Lauryn tries to school a girl about keeping her legs clothes, which not only sounds funny coming from a woman barely in her twenties (at the time of her recording), but also from a woman who had her first child out of wedlock.
On the musical side of things, the interludes,which concern a class being taught about the meaning of the word love (Lauryn is noticeably absent), get tired quick, and there are a couple of songs towards the middle of the album (in addition to the overlong, overwrought title track) which just don't come off right.
Miseducation was definitely a watershed mark for both 90's R&B and hip-hop. It brought the confessional songwriter back to soul music, and was an almost flawless weaving of various musical styles, to the point where it's as much a hip-hop album as it is an R&B album. Due to an increasingly wild personal life, Lauryn has yet to properly follow this album up, although she offered a preachy and underdeveloped-to-the-point-of-being-practically-unlistenable MTV Unplugged CD/DVD/special, which wound up going platinum despite itself. Although, Ms. Hill may never scale these artistic heights again, Miseducation is a textbook example of an artist creating an extraordinary work of art as a way of exposing and fighting personal demons and provided a temporary triumph for Lauryn Hill.
Rating: 4 stars
Key Tracks: "Lost Ones", "Every Ghetto, Every City", "Ex-Factor", "Nothing Even Matters"
Skip: "When It Hurts So Bad", "The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill"
Great Music to Play While: Licking your wounds after that b*stard left you.