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20 Years On: The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill Revisited
Angus Batey , August 20th, 2018 07:29

We still revere Lauryn Hill's dazzling debut, but - Angus Batey argues - her record still has plenty to teach us, if only we'd allow ourselves to listen

Twenty years on, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is no longer merely a great record. From the laudatory responses it garnered immediately, to the unprecedented ten Grammy nominations and five wins, and on through the anything but expected tale of what happened after it sold umpteen million copies around the globe, the music itself is often the last thing we think of when considering the record and its mercurial maker. Most of this is understandable: much of it is regrettable.

So vast has been the expenditure of ink and breath over the years that it's difficult to approach the task of celebrating Hill's magnificent debut with a serious expectation of adding anything to the discussion. The back story has been exhaustively, if inconclusively, mined: from the Fugee rapper-singer's hard-fought battle to get her own music heard, how the doomed affair with bandmate Wyclef Jean bled in to the lyrics of around a third of the record's songs, to the acrimonious fallout with the hitherto unknown crew of producers and musicians she assembled to record it that inevitably diminished its legend. And Hill has remained an enigma, the fulfilled promise of Miseducation apparently coming from a place she has no intention to revisit, even as the approach she minted has continued to have a direct or implied influence on almost every artist who has sought to combine elements of soul, hip hop and pop since.

And yet the music remains, for the most part, the least-explored aspect of this record and what it has come to mean. It's almost another way in which the record was prescient - prefiguring today's increasingly narcissistic public square, where personality and perception carry a far higher price than content; where rumour and innuendo are considered more absorbing and vital than hard-won insights. All this, of course, says more about us than it does about Ms Hill; and none of it is very encouraging.

Instead of retreading that familiar if contested ground, then, let's go back and listen to a record more often talked about and cited than thoughtfully engaged with. In it we find an artist of uncommon gifts caught in a moment of breaking free - personally, emotionally, politically and contractually, from ties of friendship and business constructed with others and from mental and psychological bonds that span centuries and bound billions. Hill's genius in this moment was to be able to capture all these essences inside single, simple phrases, sung and rapped with a lack of affectation that ensures each feels relevant, raw and real.

After an intro setting up the schoolroom scene - of which more later - 'Lost Ones' is an aberration: a combative, predominantly hostile sentiment on a record characterised by its equanimity and empathy. What gives? In one sense it's like putting the bonus track at the beginning rather than the end (and there are already two superfluous, if fascinating, extras added at the back end: a cover of 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' reportedly sung from an only partial memory of the original by a recumbent, eight-months-pregnant Hill, and the slight if sophisticated, but very definitely off-theme, 'Tell Him'). Yet in another, this anger-tinged yet ultimately measured - though still deeply biting - snap back at Wyclef is still a song of upliftment. And it definitely fits the education theme: 'Lost Ones' is Lauryn teaching her ex a lesson, not just literally but metaphorically - her delivery's acid sting hitting harder and digging in deeper than all but a handful of battle rappers are capable of. And, as we shall see later, there are moments where we probably need to have seen these bared teeth: later on Hill will position herself as a spirit of, if not vengeance, then watchful enforcement; to believe her, we'll need to be convinced from the start that this young mother isn't just going to nurture her newborn infant, but will defend him to the death.

'Ex-Factor' is absolutely the correct way to follow-up those sentiments - its bittersweet tone easing the record out of its one moment of full-on attack while painting the aftermath of a doomed relationship in far more subtle shades. Yet the deployment of a third-hand breakbeat - Gladys Knight via the Wu-Tang Clan - grounds what would otherwise be a slow soul song in the vernacular of rap. It was a single, and made sundry members of the Clan a tidy sum over the years (remarkably, Method Man talks of how he received royalties from the song, because the way the group divided songwriting income in their early days meant he was entitled to a cut for the lift from 'Can It All Be So Simple' even though he didn't appear on the track) - yet it only really makes sense precisely here, spanning an otherwise unbridgeable chasm between 'Lost Ones' and the rest of Miseducation. The record's other two most traditional songs of love lost - 'When It Hurts So Bad' and 'I Used To Love Him' - fit far better further down the running order, even though neither are entirely free of the unique musical worldview Hill brought to bear on everything here (the latter also samples a Clan track - Raekwon's 'Ice Cream').

Whether or not it was the right thing to separate 'Lost Ones' and 'Ex-Factor' with an interlude in which teacher and poet Ras Baraka freestyles a conversation about love with some young teens remains a moot point. To the cynical British ear these sequences often sounded cloying, inducing the same burgeoning sense of discomfort the kids' growing giggles reveal as Baraka writes the third letter of their topic for the day on the blackboard, without necessarily carrying through to the release those children then feel - which allows them to speak without undue fear of embarrassment. Even the perception and erudition with which some of them define the word can serve merely to underscore the sense of awkwardness: if you're minded to wonder whether their words were scripted you're already finding yourself being pushed further from the points Hill was surely trying to make. American audiences, generally less burdened by such self-consciousness, perhaps were able to take these sequences at face value rather more easily. While the listener will have to accept responsibility for the things they bring to the record, the classroom sequences can't help but put distance between the things Hill wants to say and the ability of the listener to hear her, without significantly adding to the whole. There is nothing said or implied in these sequences that isn't touched on every bit as effectively in the songs. That said, there is value in reminding the listener - whoever they are, and whatever baggage they're lugging with them - that learning is a lifelong occupation, and that it ill behoves us to assume that we're too old, to supposedly sophisticated, or too self-assured to believe that we don't need to be reminded of the basics from time to time.

Even among so heavily bejewelled a record, 'To Zion' is a singular, remarkable moment - a song written by a new mother artfully and honestly yet deeply, distressingly, shockingly unfolding the story of the pressures she had come under from those close to her who viewed her becoming pregnant as a commercial impediment. The words are one thing, the delivery of them another: she combines both the vulnerability of the moment before the decision with the indomitability of the choice once it had been made, telling us as much about the situation in the way she sings as we learn of the detail from the words being sung. Although the lyrics printed on the sleeve say something different, there's a moment in there that sounds very much as though she sings "bold as crazy circumstance" - a devastating construction that cuts to the heart of that duality. Throughout the song - as through so much of the record - she draws on the tone and language of the King James Bible, using it as both fuel for and lifeblood running through observations that transcend the personal and of-the-moment to work as universal, timeless truths. That's Carlos Santana playing acoustic guitar, too - helping locate her art in the very fabric of the musical histories and traditions Hill was weaving her masterpiece out of and embroidering it into.

It's easy to dismiss 'Doo Wop (That Thing)' as slight, but it also acts as a vital link to the past - an evocation of a more innocent era of pop, one Hill had been immersed in during the early part of conceptualising Miseducation when she wrote and produced 'A Rose Is Still A Rose' for Aretha Franklin. Vada Nobles later said it was his decision to add the Audio Two-inspired hip hop beat to a track he felt was "cheesy". Whoever came up with it, the marriage of '50s harmonies and fast-attack rap works brilliantly, and L's even-handed castigation of philanderers - a verse each for the guys and the girls - packs a more powerful punch for the pill being so sweetly sugared.

The subject-matter of 'Lost Ones' apart, this was the first time on the record she harked back to the Fugees: and even then it's pretty subliminal, the homage to doo-wop linking this record to the Flamingos sample on 'Zealots'. But on 'Superstar', Hill shows she's a graduate of that particular musical university as emphatically as if she'd been wearing a "Fugee U" branded sweatshirt. Like Clef, here she throws everything into the mix - a harp, ethereal backing vocals, even bird noises; Minnie Riperton would surely have approved - and the chorus is a straight-faced reappropriation of 'Light My Fire', with a couple of rubbed-in scraches denoting the joins where a DJ might have tried to float in a snatch of Jim Morrison's original vocal. Here was where Hill turned "hip hop soul" from a marketing slogan to a reality: for the first time, the joyous deconstruction of the creative process that was visible and audible at Fugees gigs was brought into the studio and put down on tape, as the supposedly artificial process of building new songs out of pieces of older ones comes alive before the audience's ears. The wonder of it all is that she made what must have been so complicated and time-consuming to arrange and record sound so relaxed and effortless.

The other key thing about 'Superstar' is the rapped verse at its heart. For all that Miseducation was rightly hailed as a classic, Hill's raps are rarely given the same attention as her sung vocals. Partly this reflects the ease with which the mainstream - media and listeners alike - could assimilate a singer and the difficulty it still had coming to terms with a rapper, even a quarter of a century after Coke La Rock had begun rocking the mic at Kool Herc's block parties. But we overlook Ms Hill the emcee at our peril. She was, and remains, one of the very best who ever did it - an equal even to the great Rakim in her ability to take the mind of the willing listener on speed-of-thought voyages through time and space, idea and epoch. The braggadocious mood of the 'Superstar' verse morphs over the acoustic guitar, flute, bass and snare of 'Final Hour' into something less celebratory and more troubling, if just as certain - Hill drawing on the past to drive herself and her listeners into the permanent struggles of today and tomorrow: "I'm about to change the focus from the richest to the brokest," she says, the lines part promise, part prophecy: "I wrote this opus to reverse the hypnosis" - and then, later: "I've been here before - this ain't a battle, this is war." By the time she gets to 'Forgive Them Father', one of the songs that most strongly bears the influence of Jamaica, where she hid out to escape the madness of New York while she finished the album, and the Marley clan her son would be born into, her patience is wearing awful thin, but her determination to defend remains total:

"How you gonna idolise the missing?
To survive is to stay alive in the face of opposition
Even when they comin' gunnin' I stand position
L's known the mission since conception
Let's free the people from deception
If you're lookin' for the answers then you gotta ask the questions
And when I let go, my voice echoes through the ghetto
Sick of men tryin' to pull strings like Geppetto
Why black people always be the ones to settle?
March through these streets like Soweto"

And then, just as suddenly as the clouds had thickened, the golden sunlight of the Stevie Wonder homage, 'Every Ghetto, Every City', breaks through to signal the record's closing act. A clavinet-driven stomp, its unusual three-line verse structure gives it something of the atmosphere of a playground chant or a skipping game, a cousin of Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes' brilliant and criminally overlooked 'The Block Party', and a welcome addition to hip hop's "back-in-the-day" songbook. Yet even here the lesson isn't just history - philosophy class is also very much in session: "don't forget what you got" is the key line in the bouncing refrain. Following it with the ecstatic affirmation of 'Nothing Even Matters' - a song not of love lost, but of being lost in the bliss of its present permanence, where Hill shares microphone duties with D'Angelo - is sequencing of real, and rare, class.

'Everything Is Everything' represents the culmination: if the title weren't sufficient clue, it's the point where the rest of the record inevitably leads. That's not to say that the title track, which follows it, is out of place: that's definitely the perfect end-credits song, a reflective summation of what's gone before, both as a performance (where she lobs every singing trick in the book at the vocal without ever removing the sense of exhaustion necessary to properly sell the lines, or risking undermining the authenticity of the messages imparted previously) and as a production (the addition of vinyl surface noise might seem like an affectation, but gives a lived-in patina to the track that emphasises the entire LP's tilt for timelessness). But 'Everything Is Everything' is the climax - the moment in the screenplay where we find out whether good will finally vanquish evil, though surely from the opening moments that outcome has never been in doubt.

The song has to have both singing and rapping - it's the climax of the album so it needs to showcase every aspect of her art. The addition of stabbed strings heightens the drama, recalling movie soundtracks and orchestral symphonies, suggesting that something bigger than your average three-minute pop song is about to go down. The sung stanzas and choruses are a perfect balance and exquisite contrast with the rapped verse they bookend - a few words drawn out and emphasised, versus the machine-gun blur of images and ideas that are rattled out during the rap. But it's that rap that transforms a great song into something from another plane, as L teaches a history of black American art and science that walks us from the steps of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to prehistoric Africa before launching out into the cosmos to "spar with stars and constellations". And at its end comes the single most important lesson she's spent the preceding hour trying to teach us: "Now hear this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture/Develop a negative into a positive picture".

They say the great ones have to suffer for their art, and, from a contemporary perspective, that's certainly been the case for Lauryn Hill in the decades following this moment of undimmable greatness. And yet, as an audience, our pressure on her has been thoughtless and unrelenting. Instead of acknowledging the obvious - that The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was a destination, not a waystation on a journey - we continue to expect, even demand, more of the same. This near-perfect record will continue to dispense new lessons if we approach it with open ears, minds and hearts - yet since its release, Hill's fans have craved more of the same. Her returns to the record racks have been few and far between, and nothing she's put out since has sounded like this LP - but why should it? This record is remarkable, in part, because it's a coherent, complete thought; a unique and singular response to a convergence of people, places, incidents and inspirations - lightning caught in a bottle, a one-off.

Meanwhile, a subset of the mainstream media seems to have made her a particular, peculiar focus. Which other artists, decades on from their moment of worldwide commercial acclaim, have their very infrequent live dates reviewed in daily newspapers, almost always for the purpose of timing the gap between doors opening and artist arriving on stage so that the headline can be about how late she was? She's also criticised frequently and extensively for playing versions of these songs in concert that deviate from those captured on the album - as if the purpose of live performance was to offer a carbon-copy of the past, not allow the education to continue (for both class and teacher) by discovering what new things these songs might be able to mean in different musicians' hands, different historical and political contexts. Outlets seem to believe their readerships demand coverage of Ms Hill, yet publish only those stories that build and rebuild the irrelevancy of her being irascible, obstinate, "difficult" - forgetting how she told us, almost a quarter of a century ago, that 'diva' (that term routinely applied to any woman who won't just jump when told to by a man) is simply another word for 'bitch', and apparently oblivious to what made Miseducation both great art and a huge commercial success was the very fact that Lauryn Hill had to fight tooth and nail to make sure every last note of it - and every aspect of the lives it flowed from, including that of her first child - was the way she wanted and needed it to be.

Everything gets twisted, so that when she does release a very occasional new track, or manages a minor miracle such as her devastating verse on (the similarly unfairly lambasted) Joss Stone's 'Music', we're conditioned to look and listen only to the noise around and about her, not the artwork she creates. Our collective miseducation remains complete, and apparently deliberate. Yet we seem to expect, as a right, that Lauryn Hill will return, in a form of our choosing rather than hers - when the truth is, we've still not spent enough time listening to and learning from this magnificent record.

There are still tickets available on some dates of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill 20th Anniversary Tour of the UK this November/December