In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, which went to No. 1 on Sept. 12, 1998 for three weeks, and again Oct. 10 for one week.
John Legend said it best when he marveled at the “blend of toughness and soulfulness, melody and swagger” that defined Lauryn Hill in the late ’90s, during her heyday as a member of The Fugees and then as a critically adored and commercially successful solo artist. “She did it better than anybody still has done it,” Legend told Rolling Stone in 2008, a decade after Hill’s brightest shining moment. “People are still trying to capture that moment.”
People are also still trying to figure out what happened to Lauryn Hill. Her 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, seemed to herald the arrival of a major, even generation-defining artist; fueled by a rivalry with Fugees bandmate and former lover Wyclef Jean, Hill set out to make a loud and clear statement, a tour de force so undeniable that nobody’s shadow would ever obscure her talent and star power. And she pulled this off in pretty much every conceivable way. Miseducation went on to sell more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. Hill was nominated for 10 Grammys, and won five of them, including Album Of The Year and Best New Artist. She took second place in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, narrowly losing to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road in overall points while garnering more first-place votes.
Hill was praised for being a musical polymath, capable of rapping with conviction, singing with soul, writing with heart, and making records with an ear for the gritty intangibles that made the old records she loved breathe with life, while also understanding what contemporary radio wanted in terms of singles. She was a female artist who conquered, if only for a brief period, the thoroughly male-dominated world of hip-hop. She was young (only 23 when Miseducation was released in August 1998), confident, and fearless, foregrounding her obsessions with prejudice, spiritual deliverance, the allure and pitfalls of sex, and the impossible vitality of love in the context of hooky pop songs. She was as earnest and idealistic as you’d hope for a person her age, and a lot wiser and savvier.
After revisiting The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, I’m happy to report that it hasn’t lost any of the attributes that initially made it so appealing. It’s still a staggeringly ambitious record, bridging the worlds of pop, rap, R&B, and reggae and wrapping it up in a lovingly raw yet approachable and extroverted package. It’s a record that demands to be loved while sounding like a lost classic that was found buried deep in a stack of vinyl.
As Hill runs through her paces, she displays a casual mastery of various forms. On “Lost Ones,” she’s the intimidating MC, executing perpetrators and pretenders with her deceptively laid-back delivery and aggressive wordplay. The No. 1 single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is the bouncy, piano-driven pop move, but its assertive catchiness is charming rather than cloying. “To Zion” is at the other end of the spectrum, a remarkably candid piece of autobiographical songwriting that recounts Hill’s decision not to abort her first child for the sake of her career (as she was advised at the time).
Hill’s commentary on her own life approached self-mythology on the throwback funk of “Every Ghetto, Every City,” which recounts her upbringing as a talented, streetwise kid in the greater context of the contemporary black experience. Musically, “Every Ghetto” resembled Miseducation’s most obvious precursor, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. The 1976 double-album arrived after Wonder had spent a lifetime having hits as a child prodigy and then as the grown-up, industry-recognized genius of ’70s soul. Songs was Wonder’s career culmination, the defining masterstroke that capped off almost 15 years of creative evolution.
Miseducation came at the opposite point in Hill’s career; it was a peak, along with The Fugees’ landmark 1996 blockbuster The Score, that came just as she was getting started. It was a great record, but what it suggested for the future seemed even more glorious. But like Wonder with Songs, Hill’s Miseducation was an ending, not a beginning.
Since Miseducation, Hill has released just one album, 2002’s MTV Unplugged 2.0. As threadbare and tentative as Miseducation was bountiful and broad-shouldered, Unplugged resembles a songwriting workshop more than a full-fledged album, with Hill uneasily accompanying herself on acoustic guitar on a collection of half-formed original compositions that explicitly deal with themes of empowerment and implicitly chronicle Hill’s artistic paralysis in the face of following up her beloved solo debut. The album was recorded when Hill was pregnant with her third child, Joshua, and her voice was hoarse from a rehearsal the day before. But even at full voice Hill’s new songs would have seemed half-baked. “Anyone with ears can hear there are only three chords being played on every song,” an unnamed “veteran industry executive” told Rolling Stone a few years later. “I saw it with a roomful of professionals, and someone said, ‘I feel like jumpin’ out a window.’”
Of the 22 tracks spread over two discs, nine feature Hill’s nervous, meandering stage patter, which is self-deprecating and paranoid, with unnerving asides (“I’m emotionally unstable”) sprinkled amid an extended, multi-part monologue about how fame has disconnected her from her own music and love of performing. And this unrepentant oversharing is endless. (“Interlude 5” goes on for more than 12 minutes.) The only song that has endured from Unplugged is the accusatory “Mystery Of Iniquity,” which was repackaged in far more palatable form as the vocal hook for “All Falls Down” from Kanye West’s 2004 debut The College Dropout.
Hill’s erratic behavior and lack of new material fueled speculation that she had become the latest young superstar to flame out from too much too soon. Which is, in fact, what happened, though not in the usual, drugs-and-sex-fueled-psychosis sort of way. The most thorough examination of what happened to Hill after enjoying so much success—she reportedly grossed $40 million from royalties, touring, and other revenues in 1998 and ’99 alone—came courtesy of journalist Touré in a 2003 Rolling Stone story.
The article posits three interconnected theories for what derailed Hill. The first we’ll call the “Blame Wyclef Jean” theory: It’s the weakest of the bunch, and it’s forwarded by just one person (fellow Fugee Pras) with an ax to grind. (He calls Jean a “cancer” who “wrecked” the Fugees, and by extension the public’s interest in Pras.) According to Pras, Hill was hurt by Jean’s initial reluctance to support her making a solo record, and that this created “a certain animosity and bitterness” about how her relationships were affected by the music industry that snowballed as her career took off.
The second theory is somewhat related to the first, though it has a more direct connection to Hill’s subsequent public expressions of betrayal: The “Blame The New Ark Lawsuit” theory stems from litigation filed by Hill’s backing musicians on Miseducation (whom she dubbed New Ark) claiming that they weren’t given proper credit and compensation for their songwriting contributions. Again quoting an unnamed source, Rolling Stone claimed that Hill wanted to be seen “as the sole auteur” behind the album, as a way of setting herself apart from Jean and showing that she was “the genius in the group.”
That’s exactly how Hill was perceived when Miseducation became a smash, and that likely would’ve been the case even if she had been more generous in the liner notes. Still, when she was sued by the New Ark crew and forced to pay out $5 million as part of a settlement, she felt disheartened.
Which brings us to No. 3, the “Blame The Guru” theory. Around the time of the New Ark lawsuit, Hill started hanging around a so-called “religious figure” named Brother Anthony who corralled her into Bible studies several times a week and became a fixture in her life. Rolling Stone’s battery of unnamed sources described Anthony as a bizarre, manipulative person without a clear connection to any sanctioned religious organization. But even if Anthony did wield considerable influence over Hill, it appears to have been a symptom, not a cause, of Hill’s issues. This was already a woman lost. Miseducation was supposed to be Hill’s coming-out party, but it ended up ferreting out deep-seated insecurities and exposing her dreams as a mirage offering little in the way of satisfaction or enlightenment.
After an extended period out of the spotlight, Hill re-emerged in the mid-’00s, surprisingly, with her old bandmates in the Fugees. The group appeared in the 2006 film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and did a European tour. But Hill’s old wounds still festered, which she made clear in an interview with USA Today when she called the Fugees “a conspiracy to control.” When the reunion fell apart, Hill’s old ally Pras turned against her. “You will have a better chance of seeing Osama Bin Laden and [George W.] Bush in Starbucks having a latte, discussing foreign policies, before there will be a Fugees reunion,” Pras told AllHipHop.com. “At this point I really think it will take an act of God to change her, because she is that far out there.”
If Hill was really so “far out there” that there was no hope of her recovering her early promise, she could be simply chalked up as a one-album wonder and mourned as such. But Hill continues to stay just visible enough via live performances and interviews—which always include promises of stacks of unreleased songs—that dismissing her completely still seems preemptive. Hill’s fire seems somewhat dimmed in clips from last year’s Coachella appearance, and if her rumored new album The Return does indeed come out later this year, it’s hard to believe that she’ll simply pick up where she left off on Miseducation. That artist with the unique blend of toughness and soulfulness, melody and swagger is now a 37-year-old mother of five who’s been in the midst of an emotional, spiritual, and artistic crisis that started before much of her pop-music competition had even entered puberty. And yet, the niche she created is still there, unfilled, waiting for her.
Coming up: Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required.