A baby and a breakup. The catalysts for one of the most celebrated albums of 1998 are of some the most difficult and most rewarding events in a woman’s life. At just 23 years old, Lauryn Hill became a mother and an embattled ex-bandmate. She also became an icon.
As she tells it, the fruits of creativity harvested for her inimitable solo debut grew in tandem with the child inside of her. “When some women are pregnant, their hair and their nails grow, but for me it was my mind and ability to create,” she explained to Ebony in 1998. “I had the desire to write in a capacity that I hadn’t done in a while. I don’t know if it’s a hormonal or emotional thing… I was very in touch with my feelings at the time.” This acute sensitivity was sharpened by the recent break of the Fugees, a tumultuous romance with bandmate Wyclef Jean, and a new relationship with the father of her child, Rohan Marley.
Facing pressure to terminate the pregnancy for the sake of her career, she instead leaned into her changing body, a conduit for love, consciousness, and family. “To Zion” is perhaps the most open love letter from mother to son in all popular music. As much as it’s a celebration, it’s also a takedown implicating the music industrial complex that peddles the false mother-vs.-artist dichotomy. The glorious melding of confession and celebration revealed the very real sexism Hill encountered, and the strength of will it took to overcome.
“Look at your career they said / Lauryn, baby, use your head / But instead I chose to use my heart,” she explains ahead of a gospel choir who sings of her mental and physical march toward motherhood, and the divine being that guided her toward this promised land, through a simple repetition: “Marching, marching, marching, marching to Zion.” For every male critic who panned such vulnerability as soft, there were legions of women who saw themselves in the struggle, who’d also come out the other side a more fulfilled and focused human being. To quote Rebecca Hall’s iconic 1992 essay on third-wave feminism, “Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power.” The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was such instruction set to music.
“Superstar” doubles down on her defiance. Mincing no words about the hypocrisy and superficiality she witnessed in the music industry and its acolytes, Hill challenges her peers via a simple contemplation: “Now tell me your philosophy / On exactly what an artist should be / Should they be someone with prosperity / And no concept of reality?” Her interpolation of the Doors-penned refrain “Come on, baby, light my fire” only intensified the blaze.
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The 70-minute album became an anthem for women worldwide, a clarion call to love oneself and each other, and to trust the empathy and instinct inside. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earned 10 Grammy nominations. It broke records and exceeded expectations, and prompted Hill’s meteoric rise from Fugees band member to international icon, who steered songs from studio sketches to the tops of charts. And as much as Hill’s work is a celebration of positivity and community, it’s also a powerful and gorgeous showcase for her skills as a songwriter, rapper, and singer. Soul, R&B, hip-hop, and reggae touchstones flicker like a flag in the wind, graceful and flexible, with a confidence that comes with being supported by a steel anchor—Hill’s unmatched voice, in this instance.
Since the Fugees’ 1996 sophomore LP, The Score, torched the charts, critics and fans have declared Hill top dog of lady MCs. To be clear: This marginalization of her ability is both unfair and unequivocally false. With a velvety flow unmatched by even the most skilled of her peers, astute and prophetic verses gliding from throat to tongue as if second nature, Hill has proven one of the great masters of her craft. A studied lyricist knocking down end syllables like a row of tin cans, Hill isn’t one of the best female rappers of all time. She is one of the best rappers ever.
Case in point: verse two of “Everything Is Everything.” If in no other place it’s in these 18 lines that we understand Hill’s point of view best. A celebration of spirit, self, and sisterhood, and a studious declaration of feeling oneself, there’s no better encapsulation of Hill’s multitudinous ability. From her blunt-force delivery, double-layered on words and phrases especially deserving of emphasis, Hill traverses idols (Betty Shabazz), culture (“Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti / MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti”), braggadocio (“You can’t match this rapper-slash-actress”) and her worldview (“Adjacent to the king, fear no human being”) in a swoop of unlikely rhyming perfection that has elicited a thousand horrible covers on YouTube. No one of earth or spirit can touch Ms. Hill’s skills, she says, and hearing the track, you believe her.
Miseducation has been cited as one of the most successful crossover albums of the ’90s, ushering hip-hop to mainstream pop audiences. It was the first Album Of The Year Grammy winner with rapping. More importantly, it presented the beautiful complexities of womanhood to the world—one where men controlled the industry and its conduits—with a grace and earnestness humanity could rally behind. This brilliant testament arrived without posturing and fabrication, only Lauryn Hill’s raw talent and the work of trusted collaborators in Jamaica who sought to elevate the message.
Though later dogged by squabbles over album credits, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill remains a beacon in a dark era of White House-sanctioned misogyny amplified by cable news channels 24 hours a day. The musical poetry of Miseducation transferred hope to multitudes of women and girls barraged by relentless attacks on female sexuality, female truth, and female power. In a socio-political climate that insisted women were untrustworthy, we could believe in Lauryn Hill.