Hill’s multi-award-winning debut became part of the mainstream on its own terms.
Lloyd Bradley 2012-03-07
1998 was, perhaps, the last great year for hip hop: OutKast’s Aquemini; DMX and Big Pun making their debuts; Mos Def and Talib Kweli teaming up for Black Star; and Gang Starr reappearing with Moment of Truth. Then there was Lauryn Hill.
At a time when the music was striking an interesting balance between serving its original audience, evolving its ideals and becoming part of the mainstream on its own terms, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill vastly raised that particular game. It was a collection so all-embracing it laid down a new set of standards that articulate black pop needed to pay attention to. What put so much musical daylight between Hill the solo artist and Hill the former Fugee – themselves a previous benchmark for mainstream-friendly hip hop – is how she approached the work from a pop perspective, layering it gently on a hip hop soundbed, then garnishing it with splashes of soul, gospel, reggae and funk. Musically the album retains its integrity yet won’t challenge an unfamiliar audience, allowing Hill’s lyrical ideas to be fully appreciated. And it’s in what she talks about that Miseducation becomes the album that won a record five Grammy Awards from 10 nominations.
The album is all about love in its many manifestations: joy (To Zion and Nothing Even Matters); pain (I Used to Love Him); disappointment (Doo Wop and Lost Ones); and optimism (Can’t Take My Eyes Off You). Sometimes it’s intensely personal (Ex-Factor), or takes a wider perspective (Everything Is Everything and Every Ghetto, Every City), or might even be an attack on her former bandmates (Superstar and Forgive Them Father). In every case, though, there’s an astuteness and sensitivity disproving the notion that hip hop audiences have only two speeds – radical or licentious. Hill’s poetry assumes a liberating intelligence among her listeners, to be repaid as they follow her unflinchingly into some of the more intimate aspects of her life.
This in itself is another balancing act: the album is self-possessed without being self-obsessed, and while an enduring vibe is empowerment nothing is immodest. Hill’s songs bring the craft of Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon to the dawn of the 21st century, rooted in a specific genre but delivered with universal empathy that makes it impossible for anybody ignore. Indeed, you can nearly forgive the ultra-cheesey skits between the tracks, in which kids discuss what love means to them.