Black women reflect on the emotional impact of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s most crucial body of work.
When The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released on Aug. 25, 1998, hip-hop as we knew it would change. A male-dominated genre of music that was synonymous with violence, materialism and a thinly veiled contempt for women, experienced a rebirth at the hands of Hill and her meticulously crafted bars. The former Fugees emcee laid the groundwork for her solo debut with the group’s short yet creatively compelling two-album discography.
Blunted On Reality introduced the world to a rap trio that was unapologetically eager to change it. The Score both showcased their innovative aesthetic and magnified Hill’s unmitigated star quality. “Killing Me Softly,” the album’s biggest single and one that earned them the 1997 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo, reiterated her ability to both sing and rap extremely well. The popularity and critical acclaim of The Score received new listeners aching for a third Fugees record; what they received instead were ambitious solo projects from each respective member after the group disbanded. Wyclef Jean released 1997’s The Carnival and Pras followed up a year later with his debut album, Ghetto Superstar. But The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a project that was—and still is—completely in a league of its own.
“Seeing Lauryn was seeing ourselves as beautiful, brilliant and bad. Even if we didn’t have all that she radiated, we could get there.” —Cori Murray
She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill author Joan Morgan explains why this album resonated with audiences the way that it did. “Lauryn was a breath of fresh air, a hope and—unrealistically—a solution to what was wrong with hip-hop and its representation of women at the time,” she says. “I think people hold dear to it as a really exciting possible moment of change, which in some ways wore itself out and in some ways didn’t. It does more work than just an album… than just a piece of music. It’s like running into an old friend that you don’t necessarily keep in touch with all the time, but one you have really fond memories of.”
From beginning to end, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is draped in themes of love, heartache, self-worth, and motherhood. Her self-awareness at the time felt defiant, as was her appearance. Hill was a necessary reminder that brown girls with style and soul could sell records just like pop princesses. Essence Entertainment Director Cori Murray expands on what her presence in music meant to black women.
“Lauryn Hill was a beacon. She was dark, she was gorgeous, she was fly. Most women aren’t described with swag, but she had it. She was so firm in who she was, and this is only on the surface. Her skills as a singer, rapper, and writer were unmatched,” Murray says. “Seeing Lauryn was seeing ourselves as beautiful, brilliant and bad. Even if we didn’t have all that she radiated, we could get there. With Lauryn Hill, it was always more than the music. It was her.”
“We’re not entitled to another album—I think audiences forget that. You can’t be angry with someone because they only gave you one of what you wanted.” —Joan Morgan
On the album, Hill wisely positioned herself between the genres of hip-hop, R&B and reggae to create a listening experience that was original yet classic, universal yet visceral. Songs felt fresh and inexplicably familiar. From the climatic buildups on “Ex-Factor” to the boisterous and blaring horns on “Doo Wop,” The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a sonic foray into levels of black female genius that often goes unrecognized. Lyrically, Hill’s transparency in her relationships—whether they were romantic, platonic or familial—was devastating and poetic. Her music, according to The Root producer Danielle Young, served as a blueprint for many young women of color who were struggling to find the words to match their emotions.
“The fantasy of love is something I often daydreamed about, but Lauryn helped me see all sides and what it’s like to go through the pain and come out the other side, changed. From ‘Nothing Even Matters’ to ‘When It Hurts So Bad,’ I was given a template for handling heartbreak and also knowing that I’m not alone in my experience of it,” she reminisces. “I still use Lauryn’s lyrics as a love guide now. Lauryn Hill placed value on black women where we rarely got to see that before.”
Although The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first and only record we have received from the singer, its place in music history will remain undisputed. And as Joan Morgan reminds us, we were lucky to receive it at all. “People can be disappointed that we haven’t had more music from her, but I don’t know if they can blame her or be angry. We’re not entitled to another album—I think audiences forget that,” she remarks. “You can’t be angry with someone because they only gave you one of what you wanted.” [PULLQUOTE]
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a sonic foray into levels of black female genius that often goes unrecognized.”
Twenty years after its release, Hill’s classic body of work has become a staple in the musical diet for countless numbers of black women. The album centered our complexity, beauty and humanity in its narrative—something that hip-hop hadn’t really done before. Its legacy will be that of empowerment, grace and creative exploration from a musician who was fully realized and wanted others to relish in their truths. Sway In The Morning‘s Tracy G. chimes in on the record’s lasting impact.
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill gifted the world with an authentic, alternative narrative of black womanhood. Hill’s choice of language, mood, storytelling and chords brought to front and center stage a side of femininity that’s popular now but was absent in 1998; it addressed the complexities of self-love,” she proclaims. “God was speaking boldly and beautifully through Lauryn. This album will forever be required listening.”