Back when Lauryn Hill released her first and only studio album on August 25, 1998, a young Janelle Monáe bought two copies because “I had a feeling I would wear out one and I wanted a back-up." Nas later told XXL that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill “had the soul of Roberta Flack, the passion of Bob Marley, the essence of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and the essence of hip-hop wrapped up in one thing.” Almost two decades later, Nicki Minaj even cried when she first met the groundbreaking superstar.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Miseducation changed music in ways that still impact the industry today; and no, we’re not just talking about the records it broke or the Grammys it won either. In fact, the former Fugees star went on to (mis)educate pretty much everyone who’s recorded music since, inspiring both newer artists and hip-hop stalwarts alike.
Why that might be is tough to quantify in universal, objective terms, but what’s clear is that everyone who’s listened to Hill’s debut album has taken something different away from the experience. What became a miseducation of sorts for Lauryn became an education for fans and the industry alike, teaching us something new about life and music too. What follows are just a few of the most valuable teachings Ms. Hill imparted that still resonate with us even now, over twenty years later.
It’s funny how money change a situation
The late '90s were a strange time for hip-hop. OutKast had already begun to shift the focus down south away from the East or West Coast, and less than two years before Miseducation arrived, rap music had just lost the twin pillars of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
Torn between a desire for street authenticity and mainstream appeal, hip-hop was stuck at a crossroads, searching for a new way forward following the loss of its icons. Enter Lauryn Hill. L-Boogie had already proven herself to be a superstar before she left the Fugees, but as a solo artist, Lauryn continued to defy all expectations when she also became the first hip-hop artist to win Album of the Year at the Grammys, beating out the likes of Madonna and Shania Twain for the trophy.
In the midst of hip-hop’s reinvention as a commercially viable genre, Miseducation showed that rap music could tackle wider themes beyond gangsta culture and eventually sold 18 million copies as a result. Although a few other artists had already crossed over before this, Miseducation ruled both worlds like no rap album before it, pushing hip-hop to the forefront of the music industry.
I begat this
Not only did Lauryn Hill educate the masses on hip-hop’s appeal beyond the streets, but she also redefined what hip-hop could even be by integrating both singing and rapping into her music. Although it’s not unusual to hear artists like Drake or Kanye do the same these days, few others were doing that at the time – aside from rare exceptions like Missy Elliott – and it’s safe to say even now that no one did so as seamlessly as her.
Rather than simply shift between pop and hip-hop to draw in a wider fanbase, Miseducation instead fused a far wider range of styles together, including soul, funk, reggae and gospel. Such versatility had already been hinted at earlier in her work with the Fugees, but here, Lauryn wove these genres into the music even more organically than before. Lead single "Doo Wop (That Thing)" eased fans in with a combination of Motown harmonies and soulful bars that crackled like an old time vinyl, and subsequent releases such as “Everything Is Everything” helped blur these boundaries even further.
On the latter track, Lauryn bragged that she’s “more powerful than two Cleopatras,” and it’s hard to disagree. In this one song alone, Ms. Hill touched on culture, self-love and her wider worldview across two legendary verses, opening up in ways that few other hip-hop artists would dare to up to that point. '90s rap was mostly defined by a pervasive form of hyper-masculinity, and it wasn’t until Lauryn exposed the most intimate parts of her life that others began to showcase their vulnerable side too, evolving to the point where it became common for artists like Frank Ocean and Kid Cudi to eventually expose their inner lives through song.
But it wasn’t always easy for L-Boogie to do this. On her live Unplugged album, Lauryn told the audience that it took her a while to understand the importance of opening up, explaining how she eventually realized you “can't be afraid to, you know, to expose that to the public.” Every single lyric written for Miseducation is infused with this kind of hard-earned honesty, and it’s just as evident in the tremor of Lauryn’s voice, whether she’s firing back at Wyclef Jean on “Lost Ones” or baring her soul in “Ex-Factor.”
I thank you for choosing me
Tied up with all of these emotions is a spiritual truth that’s just as integral to Lauryn’s journey on Miseducation. Six years before Kanye would go on to walk with Jesus, Lauryn openly conversed with him on multiple tracks here, weaving various references to the Bible throughout.
If most rappers were reluctant to bare their souls before on an emotional level, many were outright hostile to exploring theology in their music, considering even the vaguest of religious allusions corny or somehow detrimental to their reputation. That didn’t phase Lauryn though; even at her rawest, on the Mary J. Blige duet “I Used To Love Him,” talk of Hill’s romantic downfall soon turns to God, and his influence is directly acknowledged on various other songs, including “Final Hour” and “Forgive Them Father.”
Nowhere do these themes of love and spirituality combine more beautifully than on “To Zion.” Recalling the forthright craft of earlier songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon, this standout track doubles as a stunning ode to Lauryn’s newborn child and a call to arms for other expectant mothers who have faced similar pressures in the workplace. It’s the way that Lauryn effortlessly combines the confessional with the celebratory here which truly speaks to her strength, teaching others to live their truth without letting subsequent struggles consume them.
It could all be so simple
Almost everyone in the industry will tell you that Miseducation inspired them in some way. Just last year alone, Drake and Cardi B both recorded massive hits that sampled Lauryn’s single “Ex-Factor,” and Miseducation still regularly appears on lists charting the most influential albums of all time. Building up to the record’s 20th anniversary, NPR Music even described Miseducation as the second greatest album ever made by a woman.
Such accolades are mighty impressive, but they still don’t do Miseducation justice. More than just one of the best albums recorded by a woman or even one of the best hip-hop albums of all time, Lauryn’s solo debut is one of the greatest full stop.
Few albums are unanimously regarded as near-perfect, and even fewer of these albums retain their power two decades on, but Miseducation has aged exceptionally well, even after Lauryn’s own star power has since faded somewhat. Whatever controversies she’s faced since don’t matter; even if Ms. Hill never releases another album, she’s already achieved so much with just this one body of work.
During a recent anniversary tour, Ms. Hill described Miseducation as “the people’s album” and when you boil it all down, that’s exactly why we’re still talking about it so many years later. And hell, that’s why Lauryn can still tour based solely on the strength of this one project. Even as our memories of all the records it broke might gradually fade away, what will always remain is everything that Miseducation taught us about ourselves and what it means to be vulnerable in this world.