#39: Lauryn Hill – “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998)

This week I am thinking about what there is to love in music. Because there is a lot. I know several people who absolutely adore The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and it isn’t just the sort of album you have to come to at a certain age and it sticks with you for life (looking at you, The Smiths), it seems to have something for several levels of maturity – I can’t speak for how it’ll resonate with me in five years or a decade or two decades, but I can see traces of the things I would have loved at any point over the last decade or so, and they’re not the same things as I enjoyed in Miseducation now. I can see why this is a record a person might come back to again and again. Not bad for something written by a 23-year-old.

Let’s get this out of the way, then: I didn’t adore Miseducation like some people adore it. I like hip hop best when it’s storytelling – when it’s rattling away at a great old pace and twisting poetry out of thin air, like in “Final Hour” or “Every City, Every Ghetto” – that sort of music makes my ribcage vibrate and I will listen to it over and over. On the other hand, I am not (I am coming to discover this year) the greatest fan of anything terribly soul-influenced. There’s a certain kind of sound, which seems to turn up alongside a certain kind of romantic narrative, and I don’t really get on with either of them. Put a bookmark in that; we’ll come back to it in a minute.

All that being said, Lauryn Hill has a great voice, she weaves a great story, she has excellent taste and good range and this week I felt all the feelings in my chest. This is the second album for this project I’ve listened to that has overt Christian themes in it – the first was Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, and I found it uncanny and preachy. Miseducation is not like that at all – it has the feeling of religion that has met the real world, been kicked about a bit but essentially remained intact. It’s not sterile and unknowable and aspirational, it gets right up next to the rest of the world and interacts with it.

Honestly, I cannot believe how young Hill was when she wrote all this. I want to throw half a dozen tracks at you and get you to listen to them, to see what your heart rate does. Miseducation is a piece of cultural history, at its best political and descriptive and outward-focused and emotional.

No, look, I can’t help it. Come on. Here you go, listen to this. If you ever doubt the power of listening to other people’s music to give you perspective and empathy, here you are. It’s just a fantastic bit of storytelling, of word-picture painting.

And then, on the other hand, there is the love story. Woven throughout Miseducation is the story that presumably is most personal to Hill herself – when she wrote it, the internet repeatedly tells me, she was pregnant and going through a tumultuous on-and-off relationship which was, at this point, fairly firmly in the “off” position. There are clips of children in a classroom discussing with the teacher what love means – I think there are several implications here; firstly that there is a strong narrative of what love ought to mean, that we all learn very young; and secondly that this is not an education that Lauryn Hill got in the standard way. I am not very good at this, on account of being devastatingly prosaic and not at all up for having another person be the centre of my universe. Stories of the kind of love that veers heavily towards co-dependency just seem to slide off my back like water. I can’t get purchase on them. Soul seems to be a mode of getting that feeling across that just falls right past me. I don’t get it, you guys, I just don’t.

Which means that there are huge chunks of Miseducation I just don’t resonate with, and that’s disappointing to me. It means that this album which is 77 minutes long – that’s 2.1 Queen-Is-Deads, or 2.8 Coats of Many Colors – feels too long for me. Does it feel too long to you people who understand slow emotional music? Maybe not. What’s sad, though, is less that and more the effect it has on the internal narrative: towards the end, there’s an uplifting note, with “Everything is Everything” and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in quick succession, talking about how everything happens for a reason and you’ve just got to seize control of your own destiny. And then – then! – we’re back to a cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and finally to a song containing the lyrics “I’ll endure what comes/ Because he’s all that I got”. It feels like backsliding into old habits. It feels like it ends on a downer. I am more emotional about that than I am about the actual heartbreak. Someone give this woman a hug and a holiday.

In conclusion, you should definitely listen to this imperfect, personal album, several times, and on subsequent times you should either look the emotional bits in the eye – or, if you’re me, feel free to skip to the dramatic bits. They’re excellent.