In the pantheon of albums Lauryn Hill’s seminal album, The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill (1998) can be rightly classed as a classic. It’s a word we are all too ready to attribute to numerous albums/tracks. In many ways it’s damn irritating particularly when said ‘classic’ or indeed the ‘greatest’ is at best mediocre. But Hill’s debut fulfills all the credentials. A seamless blend of bars galore, vocal displays all on the back of a consciousness that did not smell of some rather weak and crass attempt at being profound. Nope this is an album that remains relevant.
In this two-part piece our writer Malik Crumpler explores the enduring allure of the album. Drawn back to the day the album was released, Malik vicariously re-ignites the energy, anticipation and then the absolute joy of listening to the album through his own memorable day on the day of the release. Significantly however Malik looks at the following years for Lauryn Hill where in part she seemed to go into a self-imposed exile.
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Me and my dudes was chillin’ in front of Towers Records on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, California cyphering with our boombox, bangin’ Rass Kas new album and hustling our underground cassette tapes, when an attractive, young Nia Long lookin’, Nag Champa drenched, Erykah Badu headwrap rockin’ young lady, left the record store exceptionally excited. It was August 24, 1998, the day before The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill dropped. Rap music was give or take 20 or 23 years old, the same age as Lauryn Hill at the time and I was 17.
I broke out the cypher and asked the young lady if she’d like, to support that Real Hip Hop. She laughed, “Yeah, Lauryn Hill’s new album’s out tomorrow, and I’ma most def’ support that.” I tried to game her, “So, since you gone be here tomorrow, let’s link up, have a Lauryn Hill listening date or something, you feel me?” She stopped laughing, “I don’t even know you.” I countered, “I’m a rapper, you obviously like rap.” She was annoyed, “Wow. I don’t even like rappers.” I tried to charm her, “Oh, me neither, I’m a poet too.”
“Oh, really? So now, you all on that Darius Lovehall tip? Brother, please.” In 1997 Love Jones had captivated our entire generations imagination, many of us tried to emulate the poet in the movie, Darius Love Hall.
She started to walk away, I handed her my cassette tape along with a poem I wrote earlier that day (wrote my phone number on the corner of it). She looked it over, smiled and put it in her Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill tote bag. My dude’s clowned me for giving away our tape to another pretty girl that could care less. She walked away swimming in her baggy jeans, I prayed she’d call.
To my surprise, she called that night and we talked about how much she loved Love Jones, The Fugees, Ras Kass, X Clan, Canibus and how Puffy Daddy, Master P, Cash Money Clique and Jay Z were ruining rap music. I was sprung. I asked her, if she’d listened to my tape yet, she admitted she tried but the poor sound quality and all the rage and insults just didn’t move her. I took the diss as proof that she wasn’t a real Hip Hop head. Nonetheless, having related so much on our Hip Hop tastes and conspiracy theories, we were excited about our date the next day.
She was late to the date, so I paged her from a pay phone warning her that Lauryn’s album was selling out. When she finally arrived, 30 minutes later, it had sold out. Luckily for her, I’d already copped the cd and cassette for her.
I was extra fitted in my favorite Nautica, Girbaud, Wallabies ensemble, fresh ruff neck baldie and my throwback Africa medallion. She was elegant in her loose flowing Erykah Baduesque evergreen linen, gown. In her mother’s black 95 Honda Civic (it had a great sound system, back then) we drove up to Grizzly Peak overlooking the Bay, to chill and listen.
Before the music started and the analog hiss glared, I realized that I had more expectations for her and I, than I did for Lauryn’s album. I was an underground hip-hop head, so winning Grammy’s with The Fugees had made Lauryn a pop artist in my book and therefore just another talking head in the commercialization of Hip Hop.
My date was full of expectation to the point of nervousness. We rolled the windows all the way down to let the warm wind in, turned the volume all the way up to let everyone in ear range know we had that brand new Lauryn.
Intro-The school bell signaled the start of the album and made us feel like we were in one of our inner-city classrooms, especially with the Afrocentric names in the roll call. The background music, or as my lady friend pointed out, “The score’s fresh as fuck. I mean, are those real harps?” The harps were real and I was real jealous of the fact that she considered my album unlistenable, but was completely fascinated with Lauryn’s album after hearing just 30 seconds of it. I repressed my envy and listened closely to study how Lauryn captivated her listeners so quickly.
Lost Ones lyrics smashed any doubts I had about Lauryn being Pop. She came out with bazookas blazing, creatively dissing all her lyrical competition. Lauryn Hill called no one out specifically, but blatantly attacked the ruthless capitalist modus operandum that was taking over hip-hop, at the time. She was religious with it, a high priest battling about battling.
After the second verse, the singing hit. We’d never heard a rapper sing so well, ever. “You just lost one, it’s so silly how come? When it’s all done, did you really gain from, what you done done? It’s so silly how come, you just lost one.” It was as if, all the women who had to endure Rap’s misogynist lyrics finally had a voice, and held all us dude rappers, accountable for all our lyrical fuckery. Yep, we’d really lost one.
The song faded out and class resumed. The teacher made it painfully clear that any discussions or expressions not about love, were irrelevant and immature. Myself and most other male rappers included, had never really analyzed love in our songs, as a matter of fact, we thought that to do so, made you corny. Suddenly I felt like our inability to rap about love, made our lyrical content weak and more immature than the children on Lauryn’s interludes. When the teacher asked about movies, they mentioned Love Jones. I desperately wanted to talk to my date about Love Jones, but then a sweeping sound arrived, along with digitized bird calls, bells and sizzling cymbals. What the hell was all this live music doing on a Rap album, I wondered?
Ex-Factor made me shout, “That’s that Wu Tang sample-” my date shushed me. The mix was incredibly warm, dense and crisp like old Bob Marley records. The drums devoid of the standard breaks and samples, were not just played live, they were alive. No loops. The backwoods church organ filled the car and flowed out the windows into the humid August cliffside ambience. The bird sounds in the track were synonymous with the birds in the hills, she had literally blended with our environment.
My date, was physically disturbed which unnerved me. I wanted to ask if she was okay, but didn’t dare to disturb her. She was in another place, nodding along like she was in church. The moment Lauryn hollered out, “Cuz no one’s hurt me more than you and no one ever will.” I witnessed this young lady swallow years of the patriarchies abuse and gaze out into a world I was not invited to. I never felt so detached from women’s struggle. Then the big choral chant startled me, “said you’d be there for me, there for me” and some ancient rift was reawakened “Where were you when I needed you… Where were you?” At that age I couldn’t place it, but looking back, now I get it.
What I felt was guilt and blame that I couldn’t argue against. We, not only as rappers but as black men, weren’t supporting or honoring our women in our raps, we’d failed to protect our black women from our lowest selves by denying their emotional and spiritual impact on us, in attempt to be the best capitalists we could be. Or something like that. Either way, I had no idea how to access her emotional location. The song faded out with a stunning guitar solo, the likes of which I’d never heard in Rap music before.
Instead of another interlude a vulnerable Spanish/ Moroccan guitar solo emerged and Lauryn, as if linked to my confused mind firmly stated, “One day you’ll understand… Zion”.
To Zion’s military drum roll swept my date up into some heavenly majestic lands. Lauryn’s lyrics about being pregnant overwhelmed me. Her content, her narrative was so unique, so raw in its honest potency that I barely even noticed the trend setting call and response between her vocal runs and the guitar of Carlos Santana. I hadn’t heard anyone make a song about pregnancy from the woman’s perspective. Ice Cube, Nas, 2Pac, and Eric B & Rakim were all master s of the black male birth-songs: The Product, Fetus, Letter To My Unborn Seed and The Ghetto, were esoteric meditations about the disadvantaged position of being born a black male in such a predatory, hostile environment as the United States Of America. On the contrary, Lauryn’s song was a prayer, a wish, an ode to her unborn son, like Isis to Horus. Never had this esoteric ground been breached in Rap music. Envy ended and divine intrigue set in. I looked over at my date and she was spellbound. Her zone made me so uncomfortable that I got out the car to give her space and get my own head together. I lit up a Beedi and inhaled deep. The music and subject matter of the next interlude was so playful I got back in her car. My date wiped her eyes and ignored me.
Doo Wop, That Thing was already a hit single for fusing Doo Wop and Hip Hop like no one before. My date rapped all the lyrics with enough fierceness to balance all of the vulnerability she expressed during the previous songs. She sung the chorus directly at me, pointing her finger, “Some guys, some guys are only about that thing, that thing…” I laughed, “Not me, not me. I ain’t even tried to push up on you, yet-” This time she didn’t even shush me, she just rapped the chorus at me, louder. At this point, I realized Lauryn’s music was a weapon, and it hurt. With this song, it became clear to me, that there would be no making out with this woman today, or ever. Damn, I thought, Lauryn Hill, you cockblocker. Then I finally heard Lauryn’s lyrics speaking specifically to me, “Boys, you know you better watch out/ some girls, some girls are only about, that thing, that thing…” I changed my proclamation, “Say that shit, Lauryn!” and I finally sung along with Lauryn, too.
Superstar went in, on everything me and my dudes on Telegraph always argued about: the recent corporate takeover and mafioso fascination of the new popular rappers. I wanted to talk about all of that with her but didn’t need to because Lauryn said it for us and with more legitimacy. My only comment, “Is that a fuckin’ harpsicord?” We listened and shouted our approval at the lyrics as the Abby Lincoln/ Alice Coltrane style harps and strings filled the car. By the second hook, we proudly sang along, “Everything you drop is so tired…”
My date was on top of the world, “Ain’t nobody fuckin with Lauryn, yo! Hands down, it’s so obvious, she just wrote the best battle rap song ever. Straight murdered all ya boys, Canibus, Chino XL, Ras Kass, all them fuckin’ petty narcissists.” I didn’t want to agree with her, but the fact was cruel, Lauryn’s lyrics were just smarter, more mysterious and more universal than the underground gods of the time. Unlike most male rappers, who contentedly concluded that all of our problems as black men would only be solved by the attainment of the Amerikkkan Dream = money, cash, hoes or violent revolution, Lauryn pressed the philosophy that internal revolution was the only solution to any of our problems, because “We aim no higher” our music, our culture and even our financial standing remains uninspired and thus stagnant.
Final Hour further cemented her reign. She effortlessly devastated all her competition with lyrics devoid of sex, money, murder, violence, or any capitalist braggadocio. She made it clear, ‘Bout to change the focus from the richest to brokest/ I wrote this opus to reverse the hypnosis…” Every bar was credo and reaffirmation of her devotion to the initial commandments of all M.C.s= deprogram the masses with unsentimental unpredictable truths, always be the anti-brainwash. She possessed the clarity and it possessed us. She didn’t give us answers, she gave us questions like, what exactly is the 73rd Psalm or the elect 144? New information, wrapped in esoteric exuberance. Like Melle Mel, Rakim, Chuck D and X Clan before her, her lyrics required profound investigation. In awe of our own ignorance we appreciated her call to study. My emotionally exhausted date leaned back in her driver’s seat, lit a roach and let the swirling dank smoke caress her silk emerald Nefertiti crown. Her amber eyes lifted by the flutes and mandolins, set sail into some regal ancient land.
When It hurts So Bad was a fresh take on the timeless content of the Blues. Its effect on us was blatant and flawless, although it was difficult for me to comprehend the passionate agony in Lauryn’s vocal range. Again, I sat speechless, trying to catch a contact high off my date’s roach, I thought maybe that’d make it easier to grasp the content, it didn’t.
I Used to Love Him came on and the consistent choir felt like the yearnings of moaning fieldslaves. A sliver of a piano sample Raekwon used a year or so before, accented every four bars, but the bass was live and never looped, which was pure structural innovation to me because it was a fusion of samples and live instrumentation that wasn’t driven by the sample. Most importantly, it achieved the impossible, at that time, it expanded and broke the standard 4 to 8 bar loop cycle. The lyrics were an immediate anthem, my date sang along in frightening anguish, while apparently being freed from whatever dude had last hurt her. I felt awful for all the women I had ever hurt, insulted or disrespected. I was speechless and ashamed. It was too much for me, emotionally. Again, I got out the car and had another Beedi, while my glassy eyed detached date sang along like she wrote the song.
Forgive Them Father unleashed a Reggae sub bass that made the car rattle and my date turn it up, even louder. I couldn’t stand contemporary Reggae so I stayed out of the car. She didn’t notice my absence at all. I looked down on the flatlands and wondered how many other young dudes and grown men were going through a similar scenario as mine. Then the rap hit (I was that dude that preferred Lauryn’s raps to her singing), another brutal diss rap to every rapper that was trying to “Get yours in the capitalistic system… Let’s free the people from deception…” It clicked then, she was completely in the tradition of the slave narratives and post reconstruction era philosophers like Carter Goodwin Woodson, her soul mission was to encourage you to re-educate yourself, and in-doing so, free yourself from the psychological and social oppression administered through the corporatization and commodification of pop culture in general, and Rap music specifically. This album’s lyrical content alone, poised Lauryn, to be the chief of the tribe of all serious rappers. This would no doubt be a problem for most men, who being severely conditioned by the contemporary malaise of misogynistic rap and the patriarchal rap world, in general, would have to come to terms with whether or not to follow her leadership. My date had already made her choice, I was still on the fence.
The interlude following the song asked, “What do you think?” to the classroom, of which we now found ourselves fellow students, and a debate ensued about young men’s immaturity regarding love. I found myself just as immature as the young men in the interlude. Although, before I could analyze my position, a Stevie Wonderesque groove arrived. Car doors and trunk rattled, I extinguished my Beedi and I got back in the car, to obey the funk.
Lauryn issued a challenge to all men in rap music, that was not accepted until Common made The Light two years later
Every Ghetto, Every City remains one of the greatest nostalgic narratives in Hip Hop history, full of esoteric associations, her links with the 5%ers and Rastafarianism were evident. As young 5%s ourselves, we had to respect and acknowledge the elder gods offering. We clapped until our palms were sore, and laughed with her lyrics, which tripped me out because for the first time since Will Smith or The Fat Boys, we actually laughed during a rap song devoid of insults. There was nothing I could do but get up off the fence, swallow my ego and follow the leader.
Nothing Even Matters made me think her roach’s contact had kicked in. There’re no words to describe the vibe this song stimulated on first listen. That mysterious melody was undeniably so full of joy and hope about new love, that my date actually looked me over and pondered what I could possibly offer her. I hoped that maybe this meant, she wants to make out with me. Nothing was further from the truth. As if she read my mind, our eyes locked, she smirked and I knew this woman didn’t just enjoy the songs, she understood them, had lived the unpredictable meter of love’s melody and would only settle up not down. I felt so naïve and unexperienced I developed a headache. Was this what my aunts and uncles meant about grown folks’ music? Holy shit, I needed to grow up, so I could experience that feeling!
When D’Angelo sang, “I sometimes have the tendency to look at you religiously…” the tension in my forehead dissolved, a male perspective was finally voiced, we too had a higher self or complicated conscience to express. We too, could go beyond the rage, violence and ranting of arrogant rappers, or could we? D’ was a rapper turned singer, there are no male rappers on Lauryn’s album, on purpose. Her clarity was contagious, Lauryn issued a challenge to all men in rap music, that was not accepted until Common made The Light two years later. But back in 1998, I was perplexed, could mainstream male rappers ever go deeper than the hyper violent, sex/ rape crazed braggadocio of contemporary rap and bare our vulnerability and insights on love, pain, identity issues and uncertainty, like the Blues, Soul & Funk had before?
Everything is Everything was a triumphant grand finale rooted in the vibe of a Donny Hathaway dance track. As in awe as my date was, I was terrified and excited at how high the bar had been risen for rap music in less than one hour of listening to the Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. I was afraid that I was afraid of Lauryn Hill. Again, Lauryn’s lyrics spoke directly to me and my besieged ego, “I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth…” She told us exactly for whom she spoke and to whom’s gaze, she gazed.
I didn’t dig the last song, Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Honestly, I heaved a sigh of relief, finally a derivative, wack track, I thought. But then I detected my date floating in that other world, again. Bored by the corny, power ballad nature of this song, I still had to admit, 13 out 14 innovative bangers were proof that she’d made a classic. I said it out loud. Finally, my date didn’t shush or ignore me, instead all choked up she confirmed, “She sure did, didn’t she, damn.”
She who shall not be named, dropped me off in front of Tower Records. My dudes was selling tapes, as usual, but now the boombox blasted, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. My date thanked me for Lauryn’s tape and handed me eight dollars. I didn’t care about the money, I just wanted to ask her about that enchanted place she drifted off to, but I didn’t know how to ask. She pulled off from the curb and the anxiety in my stomach gnawed at my pride.
Half way up the block, her car lurched to a stop and she reversed toward us. Here was my chance, here was my moment to let it be known that we needed to get our Nothing Even Matters on. She rolled down her window, I smiled like I’d won a battle, Lauryn chanted at me, “You just lost one, you just lost one…” My hopeful grin sputtered out, “Forgot something?” She handed me, me and my dude’s tape, rolled her impenetrable amber eyes and drove off. I never saw her again.
Featured image by JFrank
Gallery Images by Kevin Mazur