It’s a pretty difficult thing to release a record that’s genuinely vulnerable. It takes an enormous amount of generosity to truly give yourself away on something as permanent as an album. It’s even more admirable when the person behind this generosity is a strong, proud, black woman.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out in 1998, just a few years after her previous group, The Fugees, took the world by storm. While you can hear the influence of the Fugees, this record is a much more personal statement than anything released by her group. Sonically, this intimacy is provided by an ever-present acoustic guitar. Its delicate rhythms flutter gracefully between a heavy bass drum and the pop of an old school snare. This guitar not only adds to the coffee-shop vibe, but also helps to bridge the gap between the more aggressive rap influences and the smoother R&B sounds.
But what’s great about this record isn’t the genres it bent. This collection of songs is special because of the emotional diversity from track to track. In “Lost Ones” Hill lets loose a torrent of abuse, an unforgiving assault that doesn’t let up until the next track offers total forgiveness for a few small concessions. Here she says:
Tell me who I have to be,
To get some reciprocity,
No one loves you more than me,
And no one ever will.
While on the track before she was ready to fight to the death, on this track she just wants to work it out. Her personality never changes, but the way she deals with the world around her is different every song.
The biggest hit off of Miseducation takes yet another stance. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is a song about how sex works. She starts with the misconceptions held by her own gender, schooling women on the problems with their outlook towards the un-fairer sex. The next verse is equally insightful but is more concerned with the flaws in misogyny and male posturing in general. She stops short of being bi-partisan, instead she’s passionate about both sides of the argument, like any good activist should be.
There’s also a perfect song on this album. Four tracks in Lauryn Hill tells us the story of her newborn child and the sacrifices it took to care for it. She talks about deciding between keeping the child and giving it up, and the pressures that her career put on her. She sounds hopeful but she also sounds scared and uncertain, like any new mother should. Despite the refrain it’s not so much a joyous song, as a transitional one. She’s effectively giving up her career in order to live a “normal” life with her child and fighting with herself every step of the way.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is painful in its generosity. She’s not being overly passionate or unnecessarily nonchalant, instead she’s opening up a page of her diary and sharing a part of herself. She’s telling you what she really thinks, without trying to convince you of anything. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do, but Lauryn Hill did it. She made an album that gives rather than sells.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org