Lauryn Hill’s seminal debut is 20 years old this week. Here, Moya Lothian-McLean explains why it means more to her now than ever before.
There’s a line right at the beginning of Ex-Factor, the second track on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that makes me cry without fail every time I hear it. I’m crying as I type this, the song playing softly through my headphones. It’s the moment when Lauryn Hill – then only 23 years old, the same age as me now, albeit considerably more pregnant and staring down the barrel of single motherhood – sings: “It could all be so simple/But you’d rather make it hard”.
She’s talking about the toxicity of her relationship with former bandmate and lover, Wyclef Jean. But there’s a pain in her vocals that transcends individual circumstance. I wept the very first time I properly registered hearing it, as a pre-pubescent digging through my mother’s pile of CDs. Aged 12, I didn’t have experience of a love that left me battle-scarred. It didn’t matter.
Hill’s pain is visceral and transmissible. Her voice cracks. She demands answers of her lover that she knows she’ll never receive (“Tell me, who I have to be/To get some reciprocity”) and wails her anguish at the stalemate she’s found herself in (“I know what we’ve got to do/You let go, and I’ll let go too/Cause no one’s hurt me more than you/And no one ever will”). Listening to Ex-Factor is like watching Lauryn Hill cut open her chest and lay her bleeding heart bare. It hurts.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a victory when it dropped, 20 years ago this Saturday. The album was Hill’s first solo record (and last, if you don’t count the release of her live MTV Unplugged session – which many don’t) and had happened against the odds. Recorded in New Jersey and Jamaica, the creation of the album was set against a dramatic tableau that had seen Hill part ways with The Fugees, the rap group she’d found fame with, amid the breakdown of her relationship with frontman Jean. Things were complicated by the arrival of a new baby with a young University of Miami football player, Rohan Marley, who also happened to be the son of reggae icon, Bob.
It wasn’t an easy road to release. Hill’s departure from the band had also seen her lose many of her contacts in music. There were reports that she’d been ‘blacklisted’ by Jean, that her former boyfriend had told people, “You work with Lauryn, you don’t work with me.” So Hill had been forced to rebuild her team, calling up a green production group from Newark who named themselves ‘NewArk’ in tribute to their roots (in 2001 Hill would settle a suit with NewArk for an undisclosed settlement after they claimed their contributions to the record had been minimised).
She called around those who’d still talk to her and recruited fresh talent who wanted to make a name for themselves, including an aspiring pianist named John Legend. Legend was still in his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania when his accompaniment eventually appeared on track 13 Everything is Everything.
“I became known around campus as the dude who played on “Everything Is Everything,” Legend later said. “It was my little claim to fame at Penn.”
But the struggle to make Miseducation was rewarded when it finally appeared on shelves. It set the record for the highest first-week sales by a solo female artist at the time and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year (the second and last time a black woman would claim the honour). To this day, it is regularly ranked as one of the best albums of all time and as of 2013, had sold 19 million copies worldwide. On the back of Miseducation alone, Hill has attained legend status.
Miseducation has influenced generations of musicians since its release. From Kanye West to Beyoncé, artists have paid tribute to Hill for the inspiration she’s given them. Her songs stay relevant; this year alone saw Cardi B and Drake sample Ex-Factor in separate hits. It was no coincidence both their re-works were focused on female endurance. Cardi’s Be Careful was a spiked (yet vulnerable) takedown of the dynamics that allow men to cheat on women with little care or consequence. Drake’s Nice for What is a celebration of successful women, and a rebuke of the social norms that expect them to tolerate lame duck men. Both were inescapable this summer.
I am sorry to any men reading this for my next statement, but I stand by it: Miseducation is an album that speaks in a language only women fully comprehend.
Across its sixteen tracks, Lauryn Hill uncovers the suffering and survival that governs what it means to exist as a woman in this world. I Used To Love Him deals with the power imbalance of heterosexual relationships and the subordination women undergo in the face of male entitlement. “Gave up my power,” Hill bemoans of her relationship. “Ceased being queen.” When It Hurts So Bad deals with similar themes of toxic love, ending with the warning that “What you want might make you cry/What you need might pass you by.” On Lost Ones she raps about being disrespected by the man closest to her. “You might win some/But you just lost one,” she spits.
Then there’s Everything is Everything, an mediation on the oppression of black youths and Hill’s hope to break cycles of deprivation that she’d witnessed. It’s the complement to Doo-Woop, another ‘social issue’ single that got the most radio play in 1998, which – although outdated in some of its sexual politics – took shots at the “Sneaky silent men/The punk domestic violence men/Quick to shoot the semen, stop acting like boys and be men.” As a teen, I would lie on my bedroom floor rapping to Doo Woop and thinking of my father, the man who left six children scattered across three continents, with nothing more to remember him by than a few faded Kodak pictures and hair that twisted into coils with no persuasion.
Miseducation wasn’t solely about the inequalities women face though. To Zion (which Hill managed to persuade guitarist Carlos Santana to guest on) remains the most rapturous paean to motherhood I’ve heard; a song about finding purpose through a new life and the power of maternal love. It directly followed Ex-Factor on the track-listing; the balm that soothed a still-oozing wound and kick-started the healing process. And D’Angelo collaboration Nothing Even Matters was a lullaby of love; a Sunday morning spent lazing in the arms of someone, doing nothing but dozing because you had all the time in the world to be together.
I revisit Miseducation all the time, every week I’d say. Recently it has been a source of strength. I have been so angry for the past year because it is impossible not to be angry right now if you’re a woman. We are still sharing the stories that for so long have only been whispers spoken in a quiet corner or conversations brushed under the rug. But now the dam has broken and the sheer scale of the suffering women have endured, are continuing to endure every single day, overwhelms me. I wake up furious and despairing at how we will make it through this, how we will ever overcome a system that is entirely geared towards silencing and subjugating us.
Listening to Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation, though, soothes my fury, for an hour at least. It’s an album that recognises the fortitude that is demanded of a young woman. It’s about the dealing with the agony and ecstasy of falling in love while fighting to hold onto your self-respect, of being forced to break your own heart because being in an unbalanced love causes more pain than being out of it. This album understands the scar tissue that’s amassed simply through existing as woman and growing up knowing the world is not yours for the taking. Instead you will face pay gaps, sexual harassment and have your reports of ill health dismissed as ‘hysteria’. If you are a member of a minority community, there’s a whole heap of other prejudices bolted on too. And when you try and talk about it to the “ones on top”, as Hill puts it, they won’t believe you.
The record hears our weariness.
“Stay afloat,” Miseducation says. “You can do this.”
Miseducation isn’t a happy album. It’s a testament to surviving as a woman in a society that sees you as second-best. It doesn’t glorify the pain women go through as so many do (why do we extol being strong when the strength is a necessary response to centuries of being stepped on?); it simply documents it. From this record I learned that what doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, but you’re not dead and that’s a start. And the coda – the deliberately scratched and skipping final track that shares a title with the album – ends with on a hopeful note.
“I made up my mind,” Hill sings over flourishing piano, “To define my own destiny.” Amen.