Lauryn Hill emerged in the mid-90s as a credible emcee and a formidable singer with a strong connection to the earthy aesthetic of 70s classic soul. After The Score made the Fugees‘ lone female member a star, she became a symbol for both the round-the-way b-girl and the artsy singer-songwriter, and (no diss to those who’d been paying attention since Sister Act 2 and the Fugees’ 1994 debut Blunted On Reality) but the world fell in love with Lauryn in 1996. And she became an icon for good reason.
By 1996, Queen Latifah had all-but-disappeared from hip-hop following her hit 1993 album Black Reign; her music career stalled as she began to focus on TV and film roles. Salt N Pepa and Da Brat were beginning to lose the luster they’d enjoyed circa 1994, when the veteran trio crossed over huge with the multiplatinum Very Necessary and, six months later, Brat’s Funkdafied became the first album by a solo female hip-hop artist to pass the million-seller mark. MC Lyte would enjoy her two biggest crossover hits in 1996 (“Keep On Keepin’ On” and “Cold Rock A Party”) the latter of which was an early showcase for Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, who would become a star in her own right the following year. But this would prove to be near the end of Lyte’s run as a thriving rap artist. Meanwhile, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown were only beginning to rise to fame; Foxy had only appeared on LL Cool J‘s “I Shot Ya” in 1995; Kim was prominently featured on major hits by Junior M.A.F.I.A. like “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money” but her solo debut was still months away.
Erykah Badu‘s first single would drop the following December and Jill Scott wouldn’t debut for another four years. Hip-hop soul singers like Mary J. Blige, TLC and Aaliyah had best personified the culture’s influence beyond the sole realm of rappers; but, no diss to the late Left Eye, they didn’t rhyme. Not like Lauryn, at least. And in the case of Aaliyah and the Crazy Sexy Cool trio–they didn’t write.
Lauryn’s rise to fame in early 1996 was perfectly timed, as many things that touch a nerve in culture tend to be, but it was her unique charisma and earnest approach that drew fans. She was a centerpiece of the Fugees’ videos, whether helping bandmates Wyclef and Pras pull off a robbery or singing “Killing Me Softly” in a 70s-style movie theater, Lauryn was beloved because Lauryn was always effortlessly Lauryn.
Of course, after the Fugees breakthrough, they rapidly deteriorated, and in 1998, Lauryn released her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; an album that would go on to win five Grammys and sell over 8 million records in the U.S. But more significantly, the album landed firmly in the hearts of both hip-hop heads, soul enthusiasts, young folks and old—a pretty remarkable feat for any artist in the musically-compartmentalized late 1990s.
The Miseducation isn’t a hip-hop album. But it’s hip-hop. It’s not exactly a soul album, but it’s soulful. And while it was genre-bending in many ways, and full of lush production (lawsuits aside), it was also simplistic in its narrative and concept–delving into the ins and outs of love and how that love relates to our humanity. The album was never perfect; but great art doesn’t have to be “flawless” to resonate in importance.
Prior to the album’s release, anticipation was understandably high for solo Lauryn Hill. She wasn’t only easily the best lyricist in the Fugees; but one of the dopest on the mic, period. Before the rise of the uber-corny “femcee” label, she was so exceptional lyrically. There just wasn’t anybody like Lauryn. There still isn’t.
Lauryn Hill was also willing to be vulnerable on wax, and she sounded so damn good doing it. She wrote her own lyrics; and never was there a time when it seemed her image or words might’ve been pandering to some man. Inspired by a man? Sure. But, unlike contemporaries Kim and Foxy or predecessors like Salt N Pepa and Yo-Yo, Lauryn never seemed to fall victim to having her image crafted by some dude who thought he knew what other dudes would want to hear from a “girl rapper.” She wasn’t the manifestation of some man’s warped ideology; how he believed women thought and behaved. That made her real and tangible in a way the industry hadn’t appreciated before.
And unlike “tougher” female rappers like Lyte or Brat, she wasn’t working to “prove” that she was just as good as a man. She was simply being Lauryn, and that was refreshing in a way that we didn’t even realize we needed. By simply being herself, she was relatable. Lauryn spoke for regular women who had jobs, and were navigating their way through relationships, and just figuring out how to be. She preached but was never preachy. She was more like a big sister who’d acquired knowledge and felt inclined to share it with the people she loved. She displayed her strength and her vulnerability, she was dope and she knew it — but she drew her power from her whole self. She was soft but never appeared weak. She was sexy but it always seemed to be on her own terms. Lauryn may have been the first woman rapper at her level of visibility who was allowed to be a complete human being.
Her heartbreak songs still resonate for me the same way they did on first listen, particularly “Ex-Factor,” “When It Hurt So Bad” and Blige-assisted “I Used to Love Him.” Lyrically, the pain Lauryn expresses in simple phrases (“I loved real, real hard once, but the love wasn’t returned” or “When I try to walk away, you hurt yourself to make me stay, this is crazy”) haven’t lost significance in the nearly 20 years since the record was released. Lauryn’s merger of hip-hop and soul, spirituality and realism, vulnerability, and simple, but sophisticated lyricism on Miseducation helped set the stage for the success of artists ranging from Amy Winehouse to Jill Scott, who both became masters of mining similar territory
Miseducation… didn’t disappoint me at all. And it still doesn’t—no matter how fashionable it’s become to attempt to label the record “overrated.” While there are some records that are skip-able, (frankly, they were skip-able in 1998, too–“Every Ghetto, Every City” comes immediately to mind), why all the fuss in recent years? Is it because she hasn’t released a full-length album since? (We’re not counting her MTV Unplugged record.) Is it because of her strange appearances in subsequent years, in which she seemed to suffer some version of a public breakdown? Is it the lawsuit the session musicians launched when she took credit for their production? Is it because fans are disappointed that Lauryn never again delivered on all of the potential her magnetic talent promised? Or is it because a new generation, removed from her heyday, has come of age with the name “Lauryn Hill” being more defined by what she’s become and what she “could’ve been” more so than what she once was?
Regardless, when discussing the most important albums of any genre over the past 20 years, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill still makes the cut regularly. Maybe that makes it an easy target for backlash, but its influence on both soul music and hip-hop; and specifically, Lauryn’s brand of creativity; allow it to occupy a unique space that should be respected.
Even if it’s not as beloved as it was 1998.