Music

Run It Back: ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ Proved That Albums Don’t Have To Be Perfect To Still Be Classics

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Run It Back is a retrospective review of classic or game-changing hip-hop releases whose style and sound still resonate with listeners in the modern, streaming-driven era. Hip-hop has always been a forward-facing, youth-oriented culture, but it’s also deeply informed by the past. This is our way of bridging the gap, paying homage to rap’s roots while exploring how they still hold relevance today.

“It’s funny how money changes situations…”

The first line spoken by Lauryn Hill on her seminal debut, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill may just be the album’s most profound.

That’s an accomplishment. Lauryn Hill’s first (and to date, only) album is full of gems and nuggets of wisdom that bear revisiting.

However, with the album’s 20-year anniversary rapidly approaching, revisiting it can be dangerous. Without the filter of rose-tinted lenses, in the wake of #MeToo and Cardi B and Tumblr feminism, it can sound very much like a product of its time.

Some of its advice is… problematic, to be generous. Some of Lauryn’s raps read less like urgent missives from the future and more like inside-out, hotep logic. Yet, in the end, the music itself holds up, the legend, though tarnished, remains intact. The emotion, the stories, the auspicious lyrical high points all hold true.

Though revisiting a beloved favorite with a critical eye, 20 years of hindsight, and a new social context can often be anathema to its continued enjoyment, somehow, improbably, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill lives up to its classic status and is, if not just as good as it was in 1998, just as influential, just as informative, and just as critical to understanding Ms. Hill herself, the world she lived in, and just how much or little the world has changed since then.

The impact of this album is undeniable. It’s influence can be seen directly, through lyrical references and sonic interpolations in recent hits from Cardi B and Drake, and indirectly, in its refusal to compromise on conveying its author’s rich interior life, worldview, and unapologetic Blackness — before it was chic, no less. That thread can easily be observed in recent works from SZA, Beyonce, Solange, Janelle Monae, Nicki Minaj, Rapsody, and other Black women in both rap and R&B.

The punishingly revealing, autobiographical songwriting style of songs like “To Zion” and “Ex-Factor” pervades SZA’s triumphant debut album, CTRL and Beyonce’s confessional Lemonade. The proud refusal to yield to convention displayed on “Lost Ones,” “Superstar,” and “Final Hour” provided the foundation of the defiant, proudly feminist stances of Nicki Minaj and Rapsody. And yes, Lauryn’s ability to deftly navigate both full-throated belting and smart, swaggering rap braggadocio is all Janelle Monae, who slips easily between the two deliveries on tracks such as “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Django Jane.”

It’s clear that not only did Lauryn Hill build a lasting platform for subsequent Black, female performers to stand on, but that she also took the heat for it as well. Her volatile nature at the height of her success drew criticism even then, and today, she makes headlines for her erratic behavior with regards to public engagement, but she also dealt in a music industry that hadn’t made tremendous strides with regards to artists’ rights and equal treatment for women. The industry still has a long (loooong) way to go, but every Black, female singer since 1998 has the tremendous success of Miseducation to stand on — and they know it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single singer or rapper who doesn’t cite Ms. Hill as a powerful early inspiration; even Nicki Minaj herself bowed to her forebear upon meeting her.

However, just because the music is powerful and holds up well over time, doesn’t mean it’s perfect. By all means, art that seemed progressive at the time of its release feels regressive, reductive, and borderline misogynistic after 20 years of social progress.

Just take another listen to “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Some of the lyrics feel, in hindsight, pretty slut-shamey and condescending, censuring young women for taking agency of their own bodies and dress: “Showin’ off your ass, ’cause you thinkin’ it’s a trend…” While she preaches that “respect is just a minimum,” she also berates listeners for wearing “weaves like Europeans” and “fake nails done by Koreans.” It’s certainly not a productive avenue of query when women on the whole are still battling to have their rights and issues seriously addressed by a patriarchal system that devalues them all no matter what kind of hair, nails, or clothing they have on. It smacks of respectability politics, which would have garnered no shortage of criticism had the album released today.

Meanwhile, her lyricism on some tracks falls into the well-worn rap trap of packing verses with smart-sounding biblical, literary, and historical references that, when printed out and read aloud, resemble nothing so much as word salad. I know I harp on this a lot, but raps aren’t tight just because of “deep” references and agile wordplay. Rappity-rap rap verses that can’t explain themselves aren’t any more clever than simple ones that plainly state their case; as Jay-Z once pointed out, “Just because you don’t understand him, it don’t mean that he’s nice.”

Case in point, the rap bridge on “Everything Is Everything” has confounded me for 20 years, and is just as perplexing today as ever. Why would anyone bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti? Exactly what does it mean to “take it to the Serengeti,” and why aren’t rappers ready to do so? Why is L Boogie sparring with stars and constellations and is her squad really primarily composed of baby angels? I hung out in the “Afrikan” book store a lot in high school too, and let me tell you, just because you know that Ethiopia was once known as Abyssinia doesn’t suddenly mean that you should just go tossing that fact in a rhyme that has nothing to do with either.

Even with its flaws, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill stands as one of the most potent, poetic, and pivotal rap releases of the nineties. While it was breaking records and setting trends, it established an entirely new paradigm for women in rap to follow. While she was by no means the first female rapper to sing (Hi, Missy!), she made it possible for female rappers who sing to sell millions of copies while garnering multiple Grammy awards, topping the charts, looking and sounding differently than anything that had come before, and being starkly personal and raw.

In fact, no classic stands up without its flaws. A classic has to be outstanding over time, yes, but it also has to be instructively typical of its kind. It has to be of its moment as much as it transcends it. The Miseducation does so, because not only is it the standard by which we can compare nearly every similar work that’s come out before and after, it’s also a perfect time capsule capturing just what 1998 was, just who Lauryn Hill was in 1998, and how everything that had come before had led to her and its creation. It could have stopped there, but it didn’t. It continues to point the way forward for both women and men in hip-hop, exemplifying the genre and culture at their most poignant, personal, vulnerable, and vibrant. Thank you, Ms. Hill. It’s a shame that we never got another one from you… but this one feels like it might be enough.

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