Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ten Years Gone: Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

This entry is part of an ongoing series in where I take a look back at landmark films and albums released 10 years ago.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill may very well be the last great artistic statement that Ms. Hill will ever make. A series of bad decisions and unfortunate events have made a follow-up look less and less likely with each year. Think about that; it's 2008 and we have yet to receive a second studio album. Considering all the critical acclaim and commercial success, a sophomore album seemed inevitable. If a follow-up album were announced today, it would immediately become one of the most anticipated albums of the year, which says a lot for the quality of Miseducation.

The album is stacked with one killer song after the other, detailing Lauryn Hill as a heartbroken, self-righteous, spiritual songstress all rolled into one. Lauryn finds a way to meld all these themes into an experience that is as melodic as it is introspective. The preachy messages come across loud and clear, even hammering you on the head at times, but the music doesn't suffer as much as it did on her Unplugged album, which in the process of attempting to enlighten just plain put you to sleep. The sound of Miseducation is a refreshing throwback to the multi-layered soul of the 70's (honestly, there just aren't enough flutes and clarinets in popular music) while staying rooted in reggae and hip hop. This blueprint for the album is set early on in the leadoff song, "Lost Ones." It starts off as a sparse, aggressive dancehall track with Lauryn's ferocious delivery—a sound familiar to fans of The Score— but by the time second chorus rolls around, we're treated to a singsongy refrain of smooth harmonizing that is the farthest thing you would expect to hear after the beginning. It's a contrast that has been done before with various hip hop/R&B collaborations, but the fact that Lauryn Hill is in control of all the vocals is what makes it so unique and refreshing.

Overall, the album is an onslaught, but in a good way. As mentioned before, the album is loaded with life lessons and tales of folks who've done Ms. Hill wrong. Only on the reminiscent "Every Ghetto, Every City" does the mood turn light. Even "To Zion", an ode to her first born son, takes a minute to address the naysayers. It could all be a bit too much in lesser hands, but the music itelf is up to par with the heavy handed themes. Regardless of who wrote what, Miseducation is one of the most ambitious soul albums of the 90's with its effort to provide a soundscape rich with live instruments and old school arrangements, a concept that was still unique back in 1998 before the mainstream caught on to the term "neo-soul". "Superstar" should be a clusterfuck that doesn't know what it wants to be. It seamlessly melds elements of hip hop, soul and reggae, but it heavily employs the use of the harpsichord and harp, two instruments you'd least expect to hear on an R&B song from the 90's. It's an onslaught alright, especially with Lauryn wagging her finger at artificial artists, but it connects with you, like most of the album does, because of how sincere the message is and the beauty of the music. It's also why "Ex Factor" and "Doo Wop (That Thing)" work so well. Heartbreak and didacticism really don't help too many albums sell 8+ million units unless the music is accessible.

By the time the title track rolls around, you realize that you've been on a more intimate journey than you bargained for. "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is a slow burning, gospel tinged number that sums up why Lauryn is so skeptical of everyone. It gets especially wrenching with lines like "And everytime I try to be/What someone has thought of me/So caught up, I wasn't able to achieve" sung in Hill's distinct alto, which sounds like it was soaked by two-thirds of honey and one-third vinegar. Coupled with some of the rants on her Unplugged album about being an individual, it shouldn't be a surprise that it's taken so long for a follow-up. If we were listening more carefully, we would have seen this coming all the way back in 1998. It's still a beautiful piece of music that soars despite its dour tone while the vinyl pops and cracks added into the mix are a nod to the classics of previous eras. It's basically your conclusion to the thesis statement "Lauryn Hill is a complex individual who likes soul music" and wraps up the album neatly.

As long as Lauryn Hill is breathing, she'll long be considered one of the best MC's on the planet. That coupled with the fact that Miseducation still sounds fresh to this day is why people will still be asking 10 years from now if she'll ever release another album. Hopefully that won't be the case and she'll release something in that timespan, but it wouldn't lessen the anticipation. Even now, it still remains one of the defining musical statements by a woman in hip hop or R&B. Would anyone have taken a chance on future singer-songwriters like Alicia Keys, India.Arie or Jill Scott if Lauryn hadn't proved that a woman could be the main creative force for a soul album and still go multiplatinum? Not to mention that she holds the title of being the first hip hop artist to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. It was one of the moments that cemented hip hop's place as the dominant music genre during the late 90's and its further acceptance in the mainstream helped to pave the way for future nominees in the category, Eminem, Outkast, Missy Elliott and Kanye West.

Sure, the album brings back some good memories of high school for me, but when I listen to it today, the pleasure is not nostalgic, it comes from just how damn good it still sounds.

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