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There are, in the infinite scheme of life, a precious handful of things that I truly know. In a daily blizzard of bytes, I know, for instance, that all multiples of nine add up to nine, that left-handed people die earlier, and that Lauryn Hill is the oldest soul I’ve ever seen enshrined in a 23-year-old body. I suspected it when I heard her bear vocal witness on the Fugees’ undernourished debut Blunted on Reality. I had an inkling when she used the word “puerile” in a rhyme swiftly, not sounding as if she’d just befriended the word. But I knew it like my address, like part of my personal canon of facts, the first time I listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
On Miseducation, Hill, one third of the Fugees, delivers the most unflinchingly personal, soul-exposing release in recent memory. In her case, she is spreading wisdom garnered from painful history. Thus, the CD takes its title from Carter G. Woodson’s classic black history text, The Mis-Education of the Negro.
Whereas the Notorious B.I.G. was willing to show his scarred spirit and the human consequences of the street on Ready to Die, Hill has moved beyond that territory, opened up, and shown herself as a casualty of love. If there’s a demon to be exorcized in the span of these 16 tracks, it’s the ghost of relationships past a topic so radically at odds with the adolescent bullshit that is contemporary hiphop that Hill devotes a sizable portion of the CD to lyrically challenging the boundaries of her genre.
The most emotionally pointed sentiments come on songs where Hill opts to sing rather than utilize her gift for the verbals. At least five songs make reference to love betrayed by an unnamed “ex-factor.” But rather than settle for wrenching your soul and then evaporating, Hill sticks around, imbuing her listener with the belief that she’s healed herself and is stronger for the experience. Woven between her songs are outtakes of her fellow New Jerseyan Ras Baraka talking to elementary school students about the nature of love. Her willingness to love, her constant awareness of the imperative that black people dare to love, bears witness to the fact that at least one rapper has read James Baldwin and taken his words to heart.
Miseducation works because it achieves an organic fusion of styles and musics that is light-years ahead of many of the awkward R&B-rap combinations congesting airwaves now. Many of Hill’s tracks are hard to classify musically, and her vocals seem set on heightening the ambiguity. Confident in her ability to get the job done both vocally and verbally, Hill is not above playing head games, slipping between the two, tap-dancing on the borders. On “Superstar,” an editorial on the music industry, she sings with a rapper’s sense of staggered enunciation. “Final Hour”‘s oblique reference to Lil’ Kim and the Lox’s minor hit song “Money, Power, Respect” sharply informs her listener that “You could get the money/You could get the power/But keep your eyes on the final hour.”
Hill is the anti-Kim, a woman who places her faith in her own fertile mind rather than a set of surgically enhanced glands. Kim is enthralled by the act of making genital references in public, but Hill speaks deeply of her decision to bear a child at a point when many warned it would be disastrous to her career. “To Zion,” a Carlos Santana-guitar-laced lullaby to her son, is the most personal song on a thoroughly personal album, a song that writes itself into your memory. A release such as this might easily slip into maudlin moments or collapse under the weight of its own mush. But tricky though it might be, Hill manages to transmit sentiment without coming off as overly sentimental.
For all her youth, Hill is among the most lyrically gifted of rappers. Bar none. She simply works harder and brings more metaphor and allusion to the table: The brown girl is quicker than the lazy dogs of her genre. Hill can rhapsodize about loves lost, and, on a moment’s notice, wax apocalyptic on “Final Hour.” In that song’s dizzying sequence, she orates, “I’m about to change the focus/From the richest to the brokest/I wrote this opus/To reverse the hypnosis.” All said over a wispy harp and a four-note guitar that’s as ominous as a cold sweat. Where hiphop has all but devolved into a gauche player’s ball, Hill is trying to up the level of dialogue. Many are the biblical references and allusions to matters of the spirit.
On “Nothing Even Matters,” Hill employs the neo-soul of D’Angelo for a sedate departure. It is a song of the blissful nonchalance of love that plays with the contrast between D’Angelo’s ethereal vocals and high-end keys and Hill’s denser vocal phrasings. You know D’Angelo is speaking of a love jones supreme when he says, “Now my team could score/And make it to the final four/Just repossess my 4×4/’Cause nothing even matters no more.”
A funk-descended track supports “Every Ghetto, Every City,” a cut given over to reminiscence on Hill’s New Jersey childhood. Her vision here does for rap what Walter Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned did fictionally: provide a vision of black city people that is textured, complex, and human. The people inhabiting her memories have flesh and blood. They smile. They hurt and dream. This is, perhaps, the sound of rap filtered through a young single mother’s soul. Few are the male rappers willing to speak of the joy and vulnerability of parenthood; Hill speaks of being honored that a new life chose to navigate its way into the world via her womb. Like a handful of other artists Erykah Badu, Maxwell, D’Angelo Lauryn Hill is intent on moving urban music out of the kiddie pools and into deeper waters. We would be blessed were more artists similarly Miseducated. This much I know.