''The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" a success -- The solo debut of the former Fugee gains accolades and listeners

You can almost hear the squeal of the naysayers. ”Lauryn, sweetheart, you’re making a big mistake. Now is not the time to go solo. Now is not the time to have a baby. Now is not the time for real live musical instruments — I mean, what do you think this is, Stax in the ’60s? And for chrissakes, now is not the time to have another baby.”

Thanks to some deep strain of confidence or chutzpah, Lauryn Hill decided not to listen. In a marketplace that considers focus-group feedback more useful than instinct — a world in which songs sell movies and movies sell cheeseburgers — the female Fugee wrote and produced The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a demographic-defying, expectation-bucking hybrid of island and street, Muscle Shoals and Def Jam and Tuff Gong, vinegar-laced hip-hop screeds and honey-drizzled R&B madrigals. ”I wanted to experiment in sound,” she says. ”I didn’t want it to be too technically perfect.” From a niche marketing standpoint, it made no sense. It debuted at the top of Billboard‘s album chart anyway and has sold 3 million copies to date.

Miseducation also turned Hill, 23, into this year’s critical darling, in a league with beloved rock-press fixtures like Beck and Radiohead. Which is sort of hard to fathom, if you look back. Only two years ago, after all, Hill was shaping up to be a gorgeous answer to a future trivia question: ”Which actress from As the World Turns sang on the Fugees’ remake of Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ in 1996?” Yet just when the Fugees looked to be turning into their inevitable punchline — ”the luckiest wedding band on the planet” — Hill stopped copying the classics and created a dozen of her own. Carlos Santana, the Woodstock Generation ax slinger who dropped in for a cameo on Miseducation‘s ”To Zion,” says that Hill is ”proving to the world that quality and quantity can dance together.”

”To Zion,” in fact, feels like the heart of Miseducation. The song is Hill’s tribute to her infant son, Zion, but it’s also a snarled snap back at those who advised her not to have him. ”I knew his life deserved a chance,” she simmers, ”but everybody told me to be smart/’Look at your career,’ they said/’Lauryn, baby, use your head’/But instead I chose to use my heart.” (And yes, she’s still making that choice: Last month Hill gave birth to daughter Selah Louise, her second bambino with boyfriend and reggae scion Rohan Marley.) ”When I heard the song, it broke me up,” Santana says. ”Especially when she says that the whole world is telling her, ‘Man, what are you doing getting pregnant? You’re at the peak of the game! You’re at the peak of your career!’ The world says you should be doing this, and the record company says you should be doing this. But your heart says, ‘Go this way,’ so you go that way. It takes a lot of courage to do that.”

”I was listening to Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder records back in the day and feeling ‘Oh, God!’ and wanting to cry,” Hill says. ”So when you have people telling you ‘This made me cry’ or ‘Girl, you wrote that song for me,’ it makes me feel like I’m moving in the right direction. Beyond what the critics say. Beyond what the industry says. What the people say.” To paraphrase yet another poet from the old school, Lauryn Hill took the road less traveled in 1998. And that made all the difference.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
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