“It’s difficult because we live in a world that doesn’t really respect the creative and intellectual contributions of women. It’s more like ‘Oh, you’re so cute. Be quiet. Shhh, don’t talk too much.‘” – Lauryn Hill
“We can’t plan life. All we can do is be available for it.” -Lauryn Hill
In 2016, 4 hip-hop records were selected to join the Harvard Library’s archives. 9th Wonder, an artist known for his collaborations with the likes of Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, was the man responsible for selecting only 4 albums from the entirety of hip-hop. He described the 4 albums as “a collection of of albums that are standard of the culture”. Of the 4 albums selected, 1 was made by a woman. That album would later be ranked in the 10 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. That album presented a new way of making records, a way which nobody has been able to execute as well as the original in the 23 years since its release. That album would empower a brave, confident woman, allowing her to be honest and help others along the way. That album stands among the greats and, in the opinion of this amateur music lover, gets everything that a person could want out of a work of music in the most effective blend of art and entertainment since Stevie Wonder’s Songs In the Key of Life. That album is today’s album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by the incomparable Miss Lauryn Hill.
The Miseducation opens with the ringing of a school bell. A soft guitar melody is played behind the sounds of children chattering and a teacher beginning a class roll call. He goes down the line with a response of “here” until he reaches “Lauryn Hill”, which he repeats a number of times as the sound fades out, never getting a response. This is the first of many interludes which break up the music on The Miseducation and link it all together narratively and thematically. The first real song of the album is a confident rap track over a sharp boom-bap beat, “Lost Ones”. In this song Lauryn sets herself apart from not only other artists, but other people in general in, in her pointed lyrics rapping “You might win some, but you just lost one” before launching into a multi-part harmony sung chorus. Over the course of the record Lauryn delivers crisp and clever rap verses and sings out beautiful and emotionally effecting vocals, displaying a talent and ability in both disciplines that would stack up against the best of them.
At the conclusion of the first track we return to the classroom and listen as the teacher writes the word “Love” out on the chalkboard. Following many of The Miseducation‘s songs we find ourselves back in the classroom as the teacher facilitates a conversation about Love among the children, likely in late elementary or early middle school. They approach it with the wide eyed innocence of a child and the know-it-all confidence and bravado of a pre-teen. The things that the students say seem so obvious, but at a certain point in the album you have to ask yourself, “is this how I treat Love?” The students paint an idealist picture, saying that people truly in Love cannot cheat on one another, that you can fall out of Love just as easily as you fall into it, and that when in Love you adore that person no matter who they are, what they do, or anything else. I understand that these statements are all the naïve statements of simple children, but shouldn’t all of those things be true? I find these moments as heartwarming as they are upsetting, knowing that as these kids grow up, surely they’ll break their own rules. Personally, these interludes are always interesting to me, considering that in my 20 years on this planet, I’ve never known what it’s like to be in Love. But that’s just an aside.
Over the ambitious 77 minute runtime of The Miseducation, Lauryn graciously dances between musical stylings with the skill of a master in everything she touches. That aforementioned ambidexterity between singing and rapping extends even farther when put into different musical context’s. When listening to The Miseducation one has to wonder: How the hell does she do that? Some may call it talent, I would say that it’s at least a little bit Heaven sent, and Spike Lee would tell you that it’s “Black Girl Magic”. Whatever it is, it blows me away each time I listen to this record.
Thematically, Lauryn tackles as many subjects as she does musical styles. Love and loss, religion, the state of music, culture, sex, respect, self-confidence, and on, and on, and on. As many wonderful moments as there are on this album, the one that sticks out to me the most comes in the early track “To Zion”. Featuring the guitar stylings of the great Carlos Santana, Lauryn sings of an unwanted pregnancy and the advice the people around her give. “Be smart” they tell her “think about your career”. The word “abortion” is never used on this track, but the implications are pretty clear. Lauryn then likens herself to the Holy Mother of Christ, Mary, saying that an angel came to her and told her to kneel down and pray. Lauryn chooses to follow her heart and triumphantly sings “Now the joy of my world is in Zion!”, both a Biblical elusion and a literal reference to her son, Zion.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is more than just an impressive work of music, it is a genuinely effecting piece of art. Lauryn is deeply honest on this record, but by this point in the week I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about honesty and reflection. The power of Lauryn Hill comes in the confidence and the faith. Lauryn speaks with forceful bravado and vulnerability, almost paradoxically, at the same time. She gives herself into the music and the result is a masterpiece. This is not just an album that a “lesser artist” could not make. This is not a just a mindset that a “lesser person” could not reach. This is a piece of art that no other person who ever walked this Earth could make. Nobody but Lauryn Hill could have created this album. Beyond just a gold standard artist who created a gold standard piece of the culture, Lauryn is a true one of a kind person. That doesn’t mean that we can’t all be as true to ourselves, as honest, as Loving, and as confident as Lauryn is.
By the time The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill comes to its conclusion, the attentive listener will have gone through the wringer with Lauryn, hearing the series of unfortunate, unjust, and saddening things that happened to her. Almost miraculously Lauryn makes it past each obstacle in her way turning her lemons into lemonade and coming out the other end of it a stronger person. We hear of how Lauryn always puts Love first and how that drives her, despite the series of injustices that befall her because of other people and how they treat love. And then, at some point, the listener realizes.
Lauryn wasn’t at school the day they talked about Love. She was self-taught.
Thank you for reading, thank you for supporting, and I hope that you enjoyed this month’s Musical Training Plan. This one meant a lot to me.
“Now I may have faith to make mountains fall/ But if I lack Love, then I am nothin’ at all.”