Many may recognise her as Rita in Sister Act 2, the mega talented girl with an attitude issue. To only know her from this small role is to deprive yourself of one of the most original and refreshing musicians walking this earth.
From collaborating with Wyclef Jean and Pras to form The Fugees, spawning classic anthems such as Fu-Gee-La and Ready or Not as well as many famous covers and re- imaginings of classic songs, Lauryn Hill has always been an influential figure, regardless of her diminutive frame.
Now famous for her supposed eccentricity, Lauryn Hill has remained throughout her career consistently different, every word she says measured and calculated to reach an audience willing to listen, confusing those seeking what they wish to hear.
Lauryn Hill produces music that can inspire you to write, to think, to dance, to love and to cry, and it is with the anticipation of all these things that I request you to listen.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
The album opens with a classroom scene set to soft music, framing most songs with a discussion between a supposed teacher and a group of teenagers with regards to their opinions, beliefs, perceptions and understanding of ‘L.O.V.E.’ This is a neat way of unifying the recurrent theme of the album, the young people making excellent and well-thought-out points.
Fortunately these interludes are the worst thing on the album, the rest a magnificent collection of songs that transcend time.
Lauryn Hill is a rare breed, in the sense that she can rap as well as she can sing, and she can do both better than 99% of people with a record deal. Her voice is angelic, hitting notes that castrated pre pubescent boys can only dream of, never sacrificing tone and depth for a killer note. Every word is uttered with a depth of emotion that Beyoncé has never known. This is real soul, mixed with the attitude of hip hop.
When MC’ing, Lauryn Hill has a bite that contrasts her singing voice so well it should be illegal. With a more informative lyrical content comes the risk of sounding preachy and all other appropriate synonyms, however, through the rapping style Lauryn employs she eradicates any semblance of this. It is quick, direct and most crucially on the level of those she is speaking to. Her rapping voice is grounded in truth and experience, while her singing voice conjures ethereal imagery. To present these polar opposite aspects of her style in a cohesive manner is a real triumph, but not THE triumph of the record.
The production is tight throughout, from sampling the PHat delayed baseline of Wu Tang Clan’s Can It Be All So Simple in Ex Factor (using the phrase as a refrain throughout) to tremendous effect, having Carlos Santana feature on guitar or interpolating the Doors’ Light my Fire in Superstar. The production features unique instrumentation, successfully playing harps and organs over hip hop basslines and cowbell, mixed with DJ scratches. Tempos range from fast hip hop jams in Lost Ones to slower hip hop beats such as Final Hour and to magnificently slowly paced R&B/soul tracks, such as the phenomenal duet with D’Angelo Nothing Even Matters.
All these component elements combine fantastically to serve the mesmerising lyrical content of this album.
Lauryn Hill has a way of transforming tangible emotions into words. The secret ingredient to this may just be writing about things that actually happened to you. Lauryn understands this and writes a masterpiece in To Zion regarding the dilemma she faced when she became pregnant with her first son. Few other artists dare to discuss such a matter, but Lauryn Hill tackles the meaty stuff head on; “I knew his life deserved a chance, But everybody told me to be smart, Look at your career they said, ‘Lauryn, baby use your head,’ But instead I chose to use my heart”.
When it Hurts so Bad is a tear inducing portrayal of heartache, the entire song a lyrical exercise in perfection. Doo Wop discusses self respect in a frank and honest manner, applicable to both men and women. Impressively Lauryn Hill does not name and insult, nor make references to wider cultural phenomenon of the time, instead referring to and utilising eternal imagery (such as biblical references, or classic literature). By avoiding dated cultural references the album still feels fresh to this day, despite being made in 1998. Ex-Factor details the struggle between partners, articulating and expressing some of the pains involved in relationships. Notably Ms Hill manages to fit the word “reciprocity” into a song, without it sounding jarring,in fact making it seem as if it is the only word that fits. I Used to Love Him features R&B heavyweight Mary J. Blige and refers to her relationship with ex-partner Wyclef Jean.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a classic album, deserving of its numerous Grammys, accolades and multi-platinum sales, however, at 80 minutes, the album is very long with a slower pace on the back end that can drag depending on the mood of the listener. With incisive, heart wrenching, smile forming, informative, feisty and beautiful lyrics matched with likewise vocal performance and arrangement, placed on simple, supportive production, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an undoubted masterpiece.
MTV Unplugged 2.0 (2002)
After Miseducation, Lauryn Hill retreated from the limelight, had babies and wrote material. The inaugural reveal of this new material was showcased in 2001, as part of the MTV Unplugged series, made famous for sets by Nirvana and Jay-Z.
It must be said that the material Lauryn Hill presented was unfinished, rough around the edges and performed with a sore voice, severely limiting her vocal acrobatics. This Unplugged performance was the definition of ‘unplugged’; just Lauryn, a guitar and an audience with mics jotted around.
The performance was most certainly not a preview of an upcoming album, instead it was akin to a spoken word performance, with certain words said at different notes and different tempos, accompanied by a guitar.
This was a release, an explosion of ideas and beliefs for Lauryn Hill, an emancipation of sorts, used to inform the public of where she was at ‘now’ and to quash rumours of her involvement in unsavoury spiritual shenanigans.
The ‘songs’ are incredibly complex, lyrically challenging listeners in ways few have done before, often sounding like melodic rants against society and those who control it. It is in the contrast of these fierce, angry, insightful and powerful lyrics to the beautifully light (with a dark undercurrent) tone of the acoustic guitar that the most notable beauty shines through.
In one of the many interludes in which Lauryn Hill addresses her audience, she discusses the lengths she used to go with regards to the maintaining of her singing voice. Representative of her personal progression she mocks them. The voice she performs with here is rough, but still insanely beautiful. The audible strain each note induces only reinforces the subject matter, symbolically representing this emancipation from the demands of living within the confines of western society. It’s a testament to her ‘God given’ talents as a musician that this rough, unpolished voice is more beautiful than the most doctored and engineered vocal performance available over the radio.
Thematically, the focus of this album stretches beyond the more typically ‘personal’ Miseducation, indicated in the intro to only the second song; Adam Lives in Theory, when Lauryn says, “when I refer to Adam, I’m really speaking about all humanity, with no exceptions, of anybody. I know that a lot of the content of the songs is very heavy… but fantasy is what people want but reality is what they need, and I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.”
Despite this wider focus, this is all deeply personal content to Lauryn. Just because this isn’t about relationships or motherhood does not mean that this is any less powerful on an emotional level. This is the outpouring of beliefs and her most private ruminations to such an extent she breaks out in tears towards the end of I Gotta Find a Peace of Mind. Despite being often criticised for her crying and these explanations, dismissed by many musical journalists as an example of her diminished mental state or inflated ego, it is hard not to respect her for being so honest to herself and to her listeners, unflinchingly denying external pressures.
What Lauryn Hill has done that has confounded those in the industry, is reconnect with the artist. People question why she’d be so selfish, or why she’d have so many children, or become more religious, but these questions are born of ignorance. Born of an inability to understand that it is these questions she, personally, must avoid for her own well being.
This process is explained in minute detail throughout this performance, and sounds pretty nice too.
Unfortunately this artistic expression lasts for just under two hours, and while entirely fascinating, it veers too sharply from moments of inspired brilliance to insight overload. This is no easy listen, unless the sound of acoustic guitar is your number one favourite thing in the entire world. Almost all the songs carry staggering amounts of depth and moments of astonishing beauty, but in order to be receptive of these, far too much effort must be exerted over too long a period. Some songs, due to their unfinished state and the uncompromising nature of the arena they are being presented in, don’t flow, with Lauryn messing up certain chords or abruptly ending songs with statements. They are not a stain on the material, but are jarring to the listening experience.
Despite these blights, there are a handful of tracks that can be enjoyed regardless of time or mood, most notably Freedom Time, my nominee for the single greatest rap of all time. Every syllable in this rap carries a meaning so deep it tickles, and it is in the connection of these references, the way in which they are interwoven and played off of each other, that makes it this way. This would usually be a prime time for a quote, but that would do this a disservice, like judging an entire painting on a squared centimeter extract.
Hip Hop heads will take pleasure in hearing the refrain “All falls down” from Mystery of Iniquity, sampled first, covered second (by Syleena Johnson) in Kanye West’s track All Falls Down. This song features another superlative rap, concluded sharply and by bringing in one more beautifully, roughly sung hook so many will be familiar with.
I Gotta Find a Peace of Mind is a song of astonishing beauty, crying and all, but is hampered by the eight minute, thirty second run time.
If you have a spare two hours and are feeling incredibly philosophical, listen to this and have your mind blown.
“When they think you’re crazy they don’t mess wit’chu, ya’ll think that’s a curse, I’m tellin’ ya’ll it’s a blessing. It’s a blessing.”