In case you missed it, a minor premillennial miracle occurred last year: A member of the Fugees had a hit with a song that wasn’t a remake. That song, ”The Sweetest Thing,” appeared on the soundtrack to love jones and was credited to the Refugee Camp All-Stars featuring Lauryn Hill. Undeniably, though, the star was Hill, who wrote and sang it with a sexy, morning-after drowsiness. Not merely a beautiful meditation, ”The Sweetest Thing” announced that Hill had more to offer beyond boasting and remakes. What she had to offer was a second miracle: a way to combine ’70s-rooted penthouse-pad soul and updated beats in a smooth, unforced way.
The juxtaposition of old and new schools continues on Hill’s first full solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, recorded during the Fugees’ ongoing hiatus. The disc is infused with African-American musical history. When Hill breaks into hardened patois, she recalls the moral fervency of Bob Marley. On the ballads, her buttery voice harks back to Roberta Flack (surely not a coincidence, given the Fugees’ cover of ”Killing Me Softly With His Song”). Her use of harmony singers recalls ’60s girl groups or Marley’s I-Threes. But like ”The Sweetest Thing,” The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is no quick withdrawal from the nostalgia bank. Easily flowing from singing to rapping, evoking the past while forging a future of her own, Hill has made an album of often-astonishing power, strength, and feeling.
In the past, on record or in interviews, Hill has come across as strident and humorless. Miseducation doesn’t alter that perception one iota. For someone so young and so successful, Hill, who is 23, appears to have chips on both shoulders. ”Doo Wop (That Thing)” chastises ”Cristal-by-the-case” black men and the women who grovel for their attention. ”Superstar” takes shots at an unnamed music-industry figure who denigrates musicians. ”Wolves in sheep coats who pretend to be lovers” are some of the many targets in ”Forgive Them Father.” Even when Hill pauses to sing about her infant son in ”To Zion,” she can’t help but gripe about those who tried to talk her out of going through with the pregnancy.
Hill doth protest too much at times, but the beauty of the album lies in her ability to make her self-righteousness more than tolerable. In her hands, sanctimony can be ravishing. Hill produced and wrote most of the album, and like past black-pop giants Marvin Gaye and Gamble and Huff, she knows the benefit of couching even the harshest rhetoric in mesmerizing grooves. ”Doo Wop (That Thing)” is wrapped in gorgeous, intertwining street-corner vocalese. Using a rhythmic snippet of Marley’s ”Concrete Jungle,” ”Forgive Them Father” sways with island-lilt harmonies. Messianic, finger-pointing raps in ”Lost Ones” and ”Everything Is Everything” give way to fluidly sung choruses.
Every cut, even the apolitical ones, presents a new and unexpected twist, both musically and emotionally. Radiant voices carry the rueful, lovelorn sentiments of ”When It Hurts So Bad” and ”Ex-Factor,” both of which pick up where ”The Sweetest Thing” left off. ”Every Ghetto, Every City,” a childhood reminiscence on which Hill allows herself a glimmer of joy, has a funky, grunting groove that should make Stevie Wonder bob his head. Miseducation is also one of the rare hip-hop soul albums without thousands of posse cameos. D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige show up but blend right in; the focus is always on Hill and her bristly personality.
The potency of that personality can’t be underestimated. Women may have made major gains in pop and rock, but the worlds of R&B and hip-hop remain very much boys’ clubs. They’re mostly populated with lustrously packaged divas guided at every turn by male label heads and producers. The music is as exquisitely manicured as high-cost nails but deeply impersonal. The same can’t be said of the semi-conceptual Miseducation, which is infused with the highs and lows of a young woman faced with success and expectations. A cloud hangs over the album, but the effect is human, not programmed.
On the Fugees’ The Score, Hill rapped of having ”inner visions like Stevie.” At the time, the line seemed like hollow bluster from a trio who leaned so heavily on the past. But on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she’s begun to deliver on that boast, and it truly is the sweetest thing. A