“Strumming my pain with his fingers/Singing my life with his words/Killing me softly with his song/Killing me softly with his words/Telling my whole life with his words/Killing me softly with his song…”
Depending on how old you are, you heard one of two voices singing those lyrics in your head as you read them just now: You either heard the voice of Roberta Flack, who covered “Killing Me Softly With His Song” back in 1973, or you heard the voice of Lauryn Hill, when she also covered this song with The Fugees back in 1996. (Yes, I’m aware that there are many other versions of this song, including the original sung by Lori Lieberman, but Flack’s version and The Fugees’ version were the most successful ones, so we’re focusing on those for now) And it was this song that helped make The Fugees’ sophomore album The Score go multi-platinum. But it wasn’t too long before Lauryn felt the need to go her own way and record her own work without The Fugees and without Wyclef Jean.
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was released in record stores (and yes, I needed to take a drink upon typing those last two words. *sighs* Rest in peace, Sam Goody, Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, and Nobody Beats The Wiz) on August 25, 1998 and began flying off the shelves, taking over radio station airwaves not too long after, and changing the way that many people perceived hip-hop, reggae, and R&B, and what those musical genres were capable of, especially when combined on one album. Starting with her first hit single, “Lost Ones,” which was said to be about her relationship with Wyclef Jean.
Then there was “Ex-Factor” (which was recently sampled by Drake for “Nice For What”), which also touched upon her previous relationship with Wyclef, and really is a song for anyone who is or has been in a love/hate relationship with a persistently troublesome ex.
When Lauryn found herself pregnant with her first child, her son Zion, with her then-boyfriend Rohan Marley, there were many people who Lauryn crossed paths with in the music industry who felt that her being pregnant and having a child could ruin her career and her life, and they weren’t entirely shy about letting her know this. “To Zion” is her song about all of that, in which she (with the help of the legendary Carlos Santana) lets her firstborn son and the world know how much happier her life became because of her son, while letting all of her naysayers know that they didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” was Lauryn’s attempted wake-up call for both Black men and women to stop mistreating themselves and each other. It was her way of telling Black women to embrace who they are instead of pretending to be something they’re not, and for Black men to not only have some self-respect, but to also care more about respecting the women in their lives instead of trying to impress each other with flashy jewelry.
For those of us with fond memories of growing up in our respective neighborhoods and eating snacks from the corner store, watching Saturday morning cartoons, hanging out with friends, and just simply enjoying your childhood before adulthood took over and inspired you to let the markets for houses and diamonds turn to shit because of your obsession with avocados, then “Every Ghetto, Every City” is the song for you.
If you’ve ever been with someone, and your love for that person has had you caring about little to nothing else other than the love you have for that person and how much this person loves you back in return, “Nothing Else Matters,” which Lauryn recorded in a duet with D’Angelo, will have you nodding your head in recognition as you hear the lyrics.
And every other song on the album is just as wonderful to listen to: “Superstar” gives a pre-social media warning to not just celebrities, but to anyone and everyone willing to sacrifice their humanity just to impress others and gain their approval and applause, “Final Hour” covered the same themes, but leaned more heavily on warning those who would sacrifice their humanity for money and power, “When It Hurts So Bad” focuses on another toxic and destructive relationship whose pull is seemingly impossible to avoid, “I Used To Love Him” recruits Mary J. Blige herself to sing about a person who Lauryn was once willing to give her love and give her all to, but now those days are over, “Everything Is Everything” and “Forgive Them Father” is for those who are struggling to keep their heads up while trying to get from the beginning of the day to the end of the day with their bodies and souls intact, and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is about what happens when someone realizes and embraces who they are and what they’re meant to be, and begins taking those first steps to make their destiny a reality.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was considered by many to be the best album of 1998, and it went on to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Album of The Year. And all of this success and acclaim led many to believe that this was just the start of many wonderful things to come for Lauryn and her musical career. And unfortunately, they were wrong.
If you read the liner notes for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and scan the credits, you’ll see that it reads “Produced, Written, Arranged, and Performed by Lauryn Hill except…” followed by small asterisks to point out the notable exceptions of who contributed to what. Che Guevara, Vada Nobles, James Poyser, Johari Newton, and Tejumold Newton were credited for ‘lyrical contribution’ and ‘musical contribution’ as well as co-producing some of the songs, but because they felt as if they didn’t receive enough credit or compensation for their work, resulting in Lauryn looking like the twentysomething wunderkind that the media loves to write about, they sued her for additional compensation.
After that, the closest that Lauryn came to releasing a sophomore album was MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, and as a sophomore effort, it pretty much got the same tepid response as Paul’s Boutique and Mallrats. From this Complex.com article about the fifty worst fails in hip-hop:
After four years of self-imposed silence, following The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill was to make her grand return on MTV’s rebooted Unplugged. One of her opening lines, “I used to be a performer, but I don’t really consider myself a performer any more.” Yeesh. Buckle up, because this joyless ride is going to get bumpy. Emotional, rambling, and generally strange, MTV Unplugged 2.0 (how is that really the name of this album?) is a freak show: Spanning two disks, L-Boogie participates in lengthy monologues, speaking on her religious conversion, her state of being, her life changes. Between Lauryn’s clumsy guitar-playing and nonsensical raps, the long-awaited new songs sounded like disappointing demos. You expected to hear the hits? You must’ve been miseducated.
Instead of being vindicated by time and being seen as an underappreciated classic, it was and still is seen as an album that failed to live up to or surpass Miseducation in many ways.
These days, Lauryn is best known for her live shows and concerts. Not because they’re amazing (and some of them are rather entertaining to attend), but because, to paraphrase Buffy Summers, the woman makes Godot look punctual in how she flat-out refuses to start her shows on time and appear on stage when she’s scheduled to, leaving the attendees waiting for hours to see the show that they paid money for. This, combined with her bandmates occasionally throwing shade at Lauryn because of her onstage behavior and refusing to co-sign any of it, her insistence on being referred to as Ms. Lauryn Hill at all time by her bandmates and by everyone else, and the fact that she seemingly can’t even use the same musical arrangements that her hit songs are known for because of her previous legal troubles, and it’s why Lauryn Hill performing live has developed a reputation for convincing people that they’re better off flushing their money down the toilet or setting it on fire instead of spending it on seeing her in concert.
Lauryn Hill once explained making a concert audience wait for two hours: “The challenge is aligning my energy with the time.” That’s gonna be my all-purpose excuse for lateness.— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) August 24, 2018
There are still people on Planet Earth paying to see Lauryn Hill in concert. Peak headassery.— Alejandro NIGlesias (@AlejandroDaGr8) February 1, 2017
Lauryn Hill: "I'll be there in 5 minutes".— Itsloudinsidemyhead (@itsShirleyBIH) February 1, 2017
Also Lauryn Hill: pic.twitter.com/tZlnKLVKWp
"Yo you going to that Lauryn Hill concert tonight?"— pj (@pjhoody) February 1, 2017
Lauryn Hill: "nah you?"
If you went to the @MsLaurynHill concert in Toronto tonight and are mad she showed up late…you REALLY know nothing about Lauryn Hill concerts. #notjustonetime #notalwaysontime pic.twitter.com/r8C4bDygHb— Ryan Doyle (@ryandoyleshow) July 19, 2018
And yet, that doesn’t stop people from buying tickets, and other people from shaking their damn heads at those who are willing to ignore all of the red flags.
Despite all of the obstacles that Lauryn has experienced throughout her career, despite the fact that for some people, the album has fallen off of the pedestal that it was placed on in the years since its release…
Folks get really upset when you point on how Lauryn Hill's 1st album is kinda problematic and full of respectability politics— Harriet Thugman (@Tawdry_Lorde) June 7, 2017
I don’t know which was worst lauryn hill telling us not to be hoes while sleeping with a married man or TLC singing no scrubs while being dead broke— mitch (@Guts_Glam_Glory) August 26, 2018
…there is no denying that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had a monumental impact on so many people, including regular-degular-schemegular fans and artists who heard the album and were amazed at all of the thoughts and feelings that a Black woman was willing to put on record for all to hear.
It’s been 20 years since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released and this classic album still influences all of us. Thank you Ms. Hill for timeless music! #DearMsHill— H.E.R. (@HERMusicx) August 25, 2018
Write your letter at https://t.co/8ceWwH9SX3 pic.twitter.com/RpHnbMsSPF
And whether or not Lauryn Hill ever puts out another album, or learns how to align herself with time so that she’ll finally start one of her damn concerts when she’s supposed to, both Miss Hill and her fans will always have The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill to look back on, to listen to, and to marvel at its excellence.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty, Ruffhouse Records, Columbia Records