The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill retrospective

With 2018 marking the 20th anniversary of Lauryn Hill's iconic album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, we look back at the album's development and its ongoing influence

Feature by Nadia Younes | 16 Nov 2018

It’s been 20 years since Lauryn Hill released her seminal debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on 25 August 1998, and, unbelievably, it’s still her one and only solo studio album to date. ‘It could all be so simple,’ she sings in the opening line of Ex-Factor, one of the album’s most famous tracks, but for Hill it’s been anything but.

On Superstar, Hill raps, ‘All I wanted was to sell like five hundred / And be a ghetto superstar since my first album Blunted.’ But Hill got more than she bargained for; following the poor sales of her first album with The Fugees, Blunted on Reality, their second album The Score became one of the biggest selling hip-hop albums of all time. As one third of the group, alongside Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean, Hill was propelled into the public eye and became one of the most famous musicians across the world, and the success of Miseducation only built upon that.

On its release, Miseducation went straight to the top of the Billboard 200 charts in the United States, breaking the record for first-week sales by a female artist, and won five Grammy Awards out of ten nominations at the 1999 ceremony. Hill became the first woman to receive that many awards in one night and the album became the first hip-hop album ever to receive the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. But just as much as Miseducation was Hill’s peak, it was also her downfall; widely credited as one of the greatest records of all time, Hill struggled to cope with the fame her success had brought and shortly after its release, she exiled herself, with little to no musical output from her since.

The album itself is also shrouded in controversy. Due to her ongoing feud with Jean, following their break-up and the break-up of The Fugees, Hill had essentially been blacklisted, with many musicians and producers refusing to work with her. Instead, she gathered together a group of musicians from her hometown of Newark, New Jersey, known as the New Ark collective, to collaborate with her on Miseducation. However, when the album came out, its liner notes originally credited all its tracks as written and produced by Hill herself and she was hit with a lawsuit from the musicians, which was later settled out of court for a reported $5 million.

Its influence and impact, however, cannot be denied. Released just a year and a half after Erykah Badu’s iconic 1997 album Baduizm, Hill picked up where Badu left off in continuing to change the landscape of hip-hop and R'n'B, and particularly in expanding upon the neo-soul genre in which Badu became known as a pioneer. Each woman's respective debut, both albums were revolutionary in their exploration of Blackness, womanhood and in tackling themes of life, love, loss and everything in between.

Both artists were at a similar crossroads in their lives at the time of both albums’ development and release. Badu became pregnant with her first child – with her partner of two years, Outkast’s André 3000 – shortly after the release of Baduizm; Hill, on the other hand, was pregnant to Rohan Marley – son of Bob Marley – with her first child at the time of recording Miseducation. Growing and maturing are important elements on both albums, as both grapple with the idea of entering the next stage of their lives and journeying into adulthood, and in Hill’s case, preparing for motherhood.

Miseducation literally takes you back to the classroom, opening with a ringing school bell before a teacher takes attendance, and with further interludes of classroom interaction between a teacher and his students scattered throughout the album. These interludes were recorded in an actual classroom in Newark, led by educator Ras Baraka – now the Mayor of Newark – and feature the voices of local school children. In them, they are asked a series of questions about their ideas and experiences of love, naming songs and movies about love, explaining their own personal definitions of love and discussing different kinds of love, just as Hill is offering hers on the album’s tracks.

Hill gives us everything on the album; every emotion, every conflict, every battle she has faced is detailed and explored in great depth. On her dedication to her son, To Zion, she addresses those who attempted to persuade her to abort her son, and her decision not to; on I Used to Love Him, she details the breakdown of her relationship with Wyclef Jean; and on Every Ghetto, Every City, she goes right back to her own childhood, exploring the community she grew up in on her own personal love letter to the 'New Jerusalem', as she refers to it on the track.

The album is awash with big-name features too. Carlos Santana lends his Latin-influenced guitars on To Zion; Mary J. Blige provides vocals on I Used to Love Him; D’Angelo plays piano and also provides vocals on Nothing Even Matters; and a then-unknown John R. Stephens, now more commonly known as John Legend, plays piano on Everything Is Everything.

After years of silence, and only one other release since Miseducation (a live taped concert of an unveiling of new material in 2001, titled MTV Unplugged No. 2.0), in 2013 Hill released her first single in over a decade, Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix). In a Tumblr post accompanying the single’s release, Hill stated, "Here is a link to a piece that I was ‘required’ to release immediately, by virtue of the impending legal deadline. I love being able to reach people directly, but in an ideal scenario, I would not have to rush the release of new music… but the message is still there."

The rush-release became even more clear when just days after the single’s release, Hill was sentenced to a three-month prison sentence for tax evasion, after pleading guilty to charges brought against her in 2012, and was placed under house arrest for three months afterwards. Since then, she has only made a few public appearances, performing at a handful of festivals and events, and her musical output has been limited to providing guest verses on a few tracks and appearing on a Nina Simone tribute album to accompany the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?

In just this year alone though, the influence of Miseducation continues to be visible in the music world and in popular culture. Two of the year's most successful tracks – Drake’s summer smash Nice For What and Cardi B’s Be Careful – sampled Ex-Factor, and the title of Desiree Akhavan’s latest feature film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, played on the album’s title, to name just two examples.

Without The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, we may never have had Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Solange’s A Seat at the Table, or so many other albums after it. Lauryn Hill honed in on something so hugely relatable on the album – the joys, the difficulties and the complexities that come with love, and with being a woman. It’s a record that truly stands the test of time, as crucial today as it was 20 years ago, and one we can forever learn from.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released via Ruffhouse Records and Columbia Records
Ms. Lauryn Hill plays the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 23 Nov