Lauryn Hill. The name is synonymous with a great deal of negativity these days. Of late, when you do see her name in the news, music is not the first thing that is mentioned.
A couple of days ago, “I Used To Love Him” a track off of Lauryn Hill’s masterpiece (and I don’t throw that word around often) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came into my head. More specifically, the chorus came into my head. I frantically went to YouTube to nourish my hunger for this song and it got me thinking about this record. This experience. This part of my life that this record became the soundtrack for.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released on August 25, 1998 – 6 days before my 22nd birthday. I had read a few articles about the impending release of this album, so as per my customary behaviour when I was in my 20s, I would go to the record store on new release Tuesday and pick up the latest. So, on that August 25th, I bought Miseducation.
“It’s funny how money change a situation!” came blaring through my headphones…
When I first listened to the entire album, I hated it. I didn’t “get it”. Why were there talking classroom like interludes in the middle of songs (a quality that I learned to equate with genius)? Why were the songs so cumbersome? What was this whole concept? Was I missing something?
Clearly, I was.
I listened to the album for a week, and nothing was happening but I was determined to like it – everybody else was!
It was the hidden track at the end of the album “Tell Him” that first got me. It was like a light bulb suddenly went on in my head. I think the raised Catholic/spiritual side of myself, at the time connected to the meaning of that song. I “got it”. It was a love song to God. And maybe those other songs were love songs to other things…
And then the entire thing unlocked itself.
I found myself suddenly understanding everything she was singing about – the disappointment of love in “Ex-Factor”, the love for her new baby in “To Zion” (which quite frankly at this point still shakes me to the core), the love for youth and nostalgia in “Every Ghetto Every City”…everything was just coming at me and the record suddenly drove its way into my heart. Lauryn was giving a good name to people of our generation – strong, insightful, intelligent songwriting and singing. She was paving the way for a whole new breed of music. This album could make your body move and your mind wake up. There was an all encompassing thematic with this experience that was like an onion – you had to keep peeling to reveal all of the layers and textures that existed underneath.
I sit here 15 years later, with the same feelings of love and light for Miseducation. The album has received about every accolade it could get. And Lauryn herself has received both the light and the dark that comes with overwhelming success. While I do feel disappointed about how far removed she has become, as well as the unlikelihood of hearing new music from her, I still feel that whenever I do revisit the album, not only do I think about that 22-year-old boy that gobbled it all up (eventually), but I can listen to it as a 37-year-old and comprehend why this album is beloved by the masses. It’s a timeless record.
Someone from the year 2233 will be able to stumble upon this record and completely understand the point of view that is being expressed. That’s why this album connected with so many. Even down to the album artwork, with Lauryn’s beautiful face etched into that desk – we were all students in Lauryn’s classroom getting schooled on how a life can be lived.
You listen to it, and it’s like listening to a warm vinyl record on a turntable – you can hear Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Carole King’s subtle influences (amongst others) in every timbre of her voice. Lauryn Hill, while a consummate songwriter, rapper and singer, before everything else, she is a storyteller. A weaver of words and colours – and we can feel that in her work. And we still feel that.
But yes, when you mention Lauryn Hill these days, it’s no longer about the music. As though her heralded work was from a year gone by too long ago.
But, what I think is this. Lauryn Hill may not make another album – but she doesn’t have to. She spoke eloquently on this one album, enough to fill us all up over and over again. Her Miseducation continues to be our education and there will always be something to learn from this record.
Lover of music, movies and words, Merrill Matthews lives in Montreal but carries some Toronto in his heart. Full time husband, full time father. Tweet him @merrill_matth