Whether recorded here, inspired here, or created by one of our native-born artists, The Great NJ Albums takes a fan’s perspective and reflects on some of the best and most unique records from our very own Garden State.
New England Village – the housing development where I grew up – is a mostly WSAP-y neighborhood that sits somewhere in the anonymous middle of Long Island. My best friend – a girl from the neighborhood named April – was two years older than me and lived with a borrowed copy of The Score in her Walkman. That album was as inescapable as the languid haze that draped itself over the summer of 1996.
Fast forward two years. With April on the verge of graduation, I found myself more-or-less on my own in high school. The bus rides were endless and uniform in their boredom, especially the trips home. But things came alive when the kids who sat in the back curated the afternoon’s musical selection via someone’s boom box. They weren’t so bad and we often got picks from Enter the Wu Tang Clan, or No Way Out. For good measure someone would toss on “Killing Me Softly,” and people would rail about how old that was (even though Enter was five at that point). But when Lauryn Hill dropped Miseducation in the fall, that’s all we got for the remainder of the year. It became one of my own generation’s albums alongside Jagged Little Pill, Nevermind, and Ten where you didn’t need to own it to have heard at least half of it. This was the school year of 1998-99 to me.
Lauryn Hill’s History:
Lauryn Hill was born to a musical family in South Orange, NJ in 1975 and started acting as a teen, appearing in As the World Turns and Sister Act 2. She was a classmate of Zach Braff’s at Columbia High School in Maplewood and while she was a proficient student, Hill excelled in a number of extracurricular endeavors including track, cheerleading, violin, dance, and – most importantly – gospel-singing.
She and high school friend Pras Michele formed The Tranzlator Crew with the intent to rhyme in various languages. But the band changed direction when Pras’s cousin Wyclef Jean joined. By 1993, they had changed their name to Fugees and signed a distribution deal with Columbia Records. The following year, they issued Blunted on Reality, an enjoyable, old school rap-indebted LP. Eventually it was overshadowed by 1996’s The Score, a more focused and musical affair that was a massive worldwide hit, going #1 in nearly a dozen countries, spawning four hit singles, selling six million copies in the U.S., and another five million throughout Europe. The Score is now recognized as one of the great albums of the 90s, and one of the greatest of all-time.
As the Fugees were establishing themselves, Hill and Jean entered into a romantic relationship that broke apart once the group achieved stardom. Jean released his solo debut, The Carnival in 1997, and discouraged Hill from following suit. When it became apparent that she wasn’t going to comply with Jean’s dubious advice, he reluctantly volunteered to produce the record, an offer unceremoniously (and rightfully in this writer’s opinion) turned down by Hill.
With The Carnival’s three hits riding the charts throughout 1997 and The Score not disappearing from anyone’s mind anytime soon, Hill set out to establish herself beyond the imposing shadows of a romance and a professional partnership she wanted to desperately to leave behind. Camping out at Perfect Pair Studios in East Orange, Hill began crafting her confessional.
Much of Miseducation is punctuated by fly-on-the-wall-style skits that portray a teacher asking his students what they think ‘love’ means. Throughout the album they offer up answers ranging from naively humorous (“Love is…love”) to about as deep as a young teen can get, explaining that it represents the willingness to do anything for someone you love, regardless of circumstance. That answer is particularly relevant. At the time of the recording, a 22 year old Hill discovered she was pregnant with Rohan Marley’s child. Supporters encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy and instead focus on her career. But Hill declined, naming her unborn son Zion and dedicating the album’s first great song to him, singing “The joy of my world is from Zion.” There is of course a double meaning to this as Hill derives joy from motherhood as well as the more traditional definition of ‘Zion,’ as a center of spirituality and unity across a multitude of western religions. This also firmly entrenches the album in the realm of spirituality suggested on proper opener “Lost Ones.”
While our first breakup song appears in the form of the soulful hit single “Ex-Factor,” it strikes contradictory tones as Hill admits she knows she’s cared for, she knows he’s there for her. But he constantly reminds her it’s not working as she pleads “You said you’d die for me…why won’t you live for me?”
The undeniable highlight of the first half of Miseducation comes in the form of “Doo Wop (That Thing),” a sendup to the style of call-and-response choruses, harmonized breakdowns, and – in its iconic music video – synchronized backup dance moves. Hill oscillates between sing-rapping the verses and full-on belting the chorus. The horn parts over the “yeah yeah” introduction keep things grounded and organic; like if Motown was bussed down to Memphis to work with the Stax crew for the day. Nearly 20 years on, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” sounds as buoyant as it did in 1998; its universal theme of self-respect as relevant as ever.
While the back half of the record might not be quite as strong as the front, it may yet prove more influential in places as it helps predict the next decade of soul, and R&B. If the Mary J Blige-assisted Wyclef kiss-off, “I Used to Love Him,” sounds ahead of its time, perhaps it’s because Hill and future Amy Winehouse producer Salaam Remi had worked together back in the Fugees. We also get a D’Angelo cameo as he sings and plays Fender Rhodes piano on “Nothing Even Matters,” unwittingly setting the template for his own masterwork, Voodoo, which would appear two years later.
The biggest side two highlights are also the most beat-heavy: “Every Ghetto Every City,” and “Everything is Everything.” The former sounds like the clavinet from Innervisions took on a life of its own and learned to play new songs. This paean to youth is a clear descendent of Songs In the Key of Life standout, “I Wish,” and while it sometimes – like its predecessor – gets a little heavy-handed (“Little girl / curls”) in its lyrical references, the melody, the bass, and the rhythmic strut are too smooth to deny. The latter with its sampled strings, turntable beats, and memorable music video became the album’s final hit. It also features a teenaged John Roger Stephens. By the middle of the next decade, Stephens would change his name to “Legend,” and become a star in his own right.
Hill leaves us with the orchestral title track to consider the hour and ten minutes we just listened to: intertwining themes God, family, and faith with vinegar-laced breakup songs and interludes of children offering their takes on love all from the mind and heart of a 22 year old wunderkind with a reverence for the past and an eye toward the future. Hill sings, “Deep in my heart / The answer it was in me / And I made up my mind / To define my own destiny.”
What Makes It Great:
Miseducation introduces the complicated, multi-dimensional woman to the 1990s. It felt like women could be angry (Alanis, Fiona, Liz Phair), provocative (Madonna), proudly liberal (the Lilith Fair), or “artsy” (Kate Bush). Lauryn Hill was all of those things and she was resolute in her desire to achieve her goals her way. While men would claim responsibility for her stardom, Hill would refute that and press forward with the vision that her album be produced how she wanted.
Hill (and the record label)’s gamble paid off. Miseducation sold more copies in its first week than any other album by a female artist ever (422,624 for anyone keeping score). “Doo Wop (That Thing)” became a #1 hit and “Ex-Factor” and “Everything is Everything” also became hits. Miseducation cleaned up at the Grammy Awards, too as it was nominated for ten awards (again, a record for a female artist) and took home five (yet another record for a female act), including Album of the Year – the first hip hop album to ever receive such an honor. The record also garnered victories at the NAACP awards, the Billboard Awards, the AMA’s, Soul Train Awards, and the Brit Awards. It finished the job The Score started by bringing hip hop completely into the mainstream, paving the way for countless artists. Today, hip hop and R&B are the most artistically diverse, best-selling, politically-aware, and (arguably) important genres music has, as rock and roll floats out along indie’s fringes. In 2003, it placed at #312/500 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, 165 spots ahead of The Score. Lauryn Hill hasn’t released another studio album since.
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