You Just Lost One - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill turns 20

Five years ago, presumably in an act to celebrate or mark the 15th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Pitchfork’s corner of the internet for thinkpieces, hot takes, and persuasive essays—The Pitch—ran a piece called “Lauryn Hill Owes Us Nothing.”

Written by one-time contributor Kathy Iandoli, the general conceit of the column is that yes, Hill released one really great album during what wound up being the peak of her career—but she doesn’t owe her listeners, her fans, music critics, anyone, really, a follow up, or anything else for that matter; and that we really shouldn’t demand things out of her that she is unwilling or uninterested in giving, simply because of the societal expectations of what (the public believes) a musician or artist is supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it.

Our wants are not the same as her wants, and we, as an audience, needs to be respectful of that.

20 years ago, Hill released her only solo studio album. Its cover art—an old schoolroom desk, with a drawing of her face and the album’s title ‘carved’ into the wood—is an iconic image from the late 1990s. It contained three incredibly popular singles; and in the case of “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the word ‘inescapable’ comes to mind. It debuted at number one on the Billboard album charts upon release, selling over 400,000 copies its first week; and now, keep in mind, 1998 is a time before digital downloads and streaming services. 400,000 physical copies were moved within a seven-day period of time, and when closing in on its 15th anniversary, eight million copies of Miseducation had been sold in the United states; double that worldwide.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the kind of album that, two decades removed from its original release, is always on the cusp of succumbing to both its own mythology, as well as the constant controversy, mystique, and allure surrounding Hill herself. The songs themselves, coming to her following a bout with writer’s block, were written while she was pregnant with her first child—the first of many she had with her partner of the time, Rohan Marley, one of Bob Marley’s children; the couple had met in 1996 while she was touring with The Fugees, and their relationship moved very, very quickly.

Hill opted to record a majority of the album at Bob Marley’s studio, Tuff Gong, in Jamaica, as a means to try and retreat from the influence and pressure she was feeling from both her (at the time) Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean, as well as executives from her label, who wanted her to work with an outside producer, rather than produce the entire record herself.

With her taking that role, as well as taking a stand on how she wanted to present her vision, Miseducation, whether she knew it or not while it was taking shape, represents Hill trying to change people’s perceptions of her—no longer ‘the girl from the Fugees,’ it’s the kind of ambitious, dense record that signifies the arrival of an ‘artist.’

There’s a lot to unpack on an album like Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: it is structured around the loose concept of a classroom setting where the students and the teacher are discussing the idea of love. The album begins with an ‘of the time’ introductory track, and at least during the first half, includes between track segues—this, thankfully, is less consistent as the album continues.

While these breaks in the album wind up being high among the flaws found within, as well as the Achilles’s Heel of, like, nearly every hip-hop and rap record from the 1990s, Miseducation is, more importantly, the definitive (and, I guess, final) statement from Hill as an artist, songwriter, and performer.

Impending motherhood may have served as an inspiration, the material of Miseducation also tackles Hill’s overall unease and restlessness as a performer and public figure, spirituality and faith, as well as love and pain—a number of the album’s tracks, like “Ex-Factor,” for example, are strongly believed to be about Hill’s involvement with Wyclef Jean, while a song like “Lost Ones,” may be about both Jean and the third member of the Fugees, Pras—“It’s funny how money change a situation,” she says, at the start of the track. “Miscommunication lead to complication—my emancipation don’t fit your equation.”

I mean, it’s kind of hard to look at an opening line like that in any other way.

The tensions within the Fugees were well documented, even as they were recording their 1996 breakthrough The Score—Jean, married at the time, began a tumultuous affair with Hill, who, at one point before the recording sessions were even over, tried to quit the group. Her whirlwind relationship with Marley, as well her pregnancy, added to a strain in her relationship with Jean. The group’s success overall, as well as the varying levels of success of the members outside the group, individually, coupled with Hill’s mercurial and volatile personality, may also have contributed to the group’s almost immediate implosion and inability to reconcile.

With all of that resting on the shoulders of Miseducation, Hill works through it all in a seemingly effortless nature, putting together a collection of songs that nearly transcends and defies categorization—blending soulful R&B, hip-hop, and reggae—with Hill working hard to find that balance between the tension and release of singing, rapping, or working both into a song.

It sounds like it, in the hands of someone less capable, could arrive as a disaster; but despite itself, Miseducation manages cohesion from beginning to end.

However, even with that cohesion, and the legacy that Miseducation has left behind, it is not a perfect album, though it aspires to be one—like The Fugees’ The Score before it, or albums like Reasonable Doubt and The Infamous, Miseducation is a great album that is on the cusp of better things if it weren’t for the classroom segues.

Granted, they are more palatable than a lot of skits or interludes in between tracks on albums from this era, but they still destroy the momentum that builds up as the album unfolds; though here, in this context, it serves the greater concept of the record—I get it, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy this element, nor does it mean that it has aged well.

The album itself, a sprawling 16 tracks (not unheard of in the 1990s) can, at times, be a little slowly paced. I hesitate to say that it’s frontloaded with the best material—though two singles arrive within the first five tracks—but it begins with a huge burst of energy (and vitriol) in the form of “Lost Ones,” before retreating into more pensive territory with the palpable anguish of “Ex-Factor,” and the sentimentality of “To Zion.”

The structure of the record is obviously very deliberate—it’s the kind of thing that, much like Hill herself as a person and persona, requires patience (like when things start to sound a little samey at times) and yes, there are the popular singles or more successfully executed songs, the intent is that Miseducation be experienced as a whole, from beginning to end, so, yes, you have to sit through The Doors’ interpolating “Superstar,” or the slow moving pleading of “When it Hurts So Bad” in order to see where they fall into the larger picture Hill is trying to construct.

While the ebb and flow in quality and speed of the first half can be frustrating at times, Miseducation really finds the right pacing, more or less, in the latter portion—the near Stevie Wonder levels of slinking, soulful funk on the reminiscent “Every Ghetto, Every City,” the smoldering sensuality that Hill is able to conjure up with a surprise appearance from D’Angelo (before the self-imposed exile) still burn slowly even today on “Nothing Even Matters. The album technically concludes with the titular track, there are two unlisted songs, including a surprising and enjoyable turn of the classic “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” which winds up being one of the highlights of the entire record.

In sitting down to look at The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill from both a critical and nostalgic point of view, I found that it was almost easier, if not more interesting, to write about what occurred with Hill both before and after the release of the record—again, the album has withstood the test of time, and is important in the history of popular music, but it also is always on that cusp of being overshadowed.

Things, more or less, began to spiral downward after the massive success of the album. Pregnant again at the time of its release, she gave birth to her second child at the end of 1998; at the same time, a collective of musicians known as ‘New Ark,’ players who performed on Miseducation, sued Hill for miscrediting their work on the record—they would eventually settle out of court for $5 million.

By the year 2000, Hill was, more or less, living in exile, and in 2001, was pregnant with her third child. At that time, she was tapped to perform for MTV2’s Unplugged 2.0 series, where she opted to unveil a set of new and unreleased songs, alone, with an acoustic guitar, speaking and at times rambling nervously, at length, in between songs.

A recording of the performance was issued the following year—‘polarizing’ is a kind word to describe its reception. Some saw it as a fascinating and fearless experiment; others were less open to its disorganized nature. The unhinged, overly emotional state Hill both spoke and sung in during the performance caused a number of people to see it as a mental health crisis set to music.

In 2004, Hill took part in an ill-fated Fugees reunion, with the group performing at an event that would later be included in the film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party; the following year, the group performed at the BET Awards, and attempted a reunion tour across Europe, but the old tensions among the trio resurfaced quickly, and any intention of recording a new Fugees record quickly dissolved.

Hill, herself, has an exceedingly infamous track record w/r/t live performances—touring erratically and sporadically in the late 2000s, as well as in more recent years. The ‘erratic’ portion of her live show has, unfortunately, become more synonymous with her name now than the music she used to make.

If the show happens at all, it usually starts upwards of two to three hours later than anticipated; she’ll play ‘the hits,’ but they’ll be dramatically rearranged to the point where they are almost unrecognizable; and while on stage, as noted at a recent performance in Toronto, she’ll become belligerent toward both her band, as well as her sound mixers.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Miseducation, Hill set out on the road with the intention of performing the album in full—an idea that seemed almost too cloying and nostalgic for a person like her to really want to do. Like, someone had to have convinced her or forced her hand into agreeing to this. I looked at the list of tour dates and thought, “There is absolutely no way she’s going to get through these shows.” Around seven dates were promptly cancelled and, as of yet, not rescheduled, shortly after her appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago—due to ‘unforeseen production issues.’

As to why she goes on hours later than scheduled, in 2016, she defended herself by saying she needed to ‘align her energy with the time.’

There is also, of course, her time spent in a federal prison, in 2013, for tax evasion. In 2012, she was charged with three counts of tax fraud for income ($1.8 million) she failed to disclose—in a lengthy post on Tumblr, she said was ‘underground,’ and stopped paying her taxes because she saw it ‘necessary to withdraw from society’ in order to guarantee the safety of her family as well as herself.

Following a new deal with Sony Music—a questionable move with no chance for return on their part—Hill served three months of her sentence and paid back what she owed.

It was during this time that Hill released two new singles—one song, “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix),” which arrived shortly before she was incarcerated, and contained what was viewed as anti-LBGTQ lyrics; the other song, “Consumerism,” was issued at the time she was released from prison.

There is no indication that Hill has been working on new material, or is interested in doing so in the immediate future.

It is true that Lauryn Hill owes us nothing, but then why do we keep asking things of her?

For an album as seminal as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is, I had a small amount of hope that Sony would remaster and reissue it in celebration of its 20th anniversary—or at least give it a proper vinyl presentation; it has only been repressed for various vinyl editions in recent years, but never remastered.

However, given how poorly the beginning of the anniversary tour went, I presume there will be little, if any, additional celebrating before the end of 2018.

It may be a little slow and a little samey sounding at times, but Miseducation has aged gracefully—it doesn’t sound too horribly dated, and, somehow, it is still capable of being an exhilarating listen. It’s the kind of album that only could have been made at this time. Music like this—R&B infused with hip-hop that would also, in the same breath, dominate mainstream radio so effortlessly—is simply not being made now.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is important still, 20 years after the fact, because it’s a snapshot in time—representative of a moment when Hill, as an artist, believed she had something to prove: to her former bandmates, to her audience, and to herself.

She no longer has to prove anything to anyone (she never really did in the first place) and we shouldn’t ask things of her that she is unable or unwilling to provide in return.