Counterbalance No. 152: 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'
It could all be so simple, but you'd rather make it hard. Loving the 152nd most acclaimed album of all time is like a battle and we both end up with scars. Or maybe not. Counterbalance investigates.
Klinger: As you know, Mendelsohn, we take our orders from the Great List over at Acclaimed Music, the aggregation of critical opinion compiled with great love and care by a genuine Swedish mathematician, so the fact that we're covering an album by Lauryn Hill is sheer happenstance. While it is true that Ms. Hill was recently released from the Big House and is apparently set to resume her performing career, it's pure coincidence that her breakthrough solo album is clocking in this week. Still, its presence does provide us with a unique opportunity to consider one of the most baffling careers in modern pop music.
I recall that when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released back in the waning days of the Clinton administration, it was heralded as a near instant classic. Hill appeared on the cover of Time magazine, she was declared the latest heir to the R&B/hip-hop throne, and by all accounts she appeared to be unstoppable. Until, of course, she stopped. What's followed has been series of bafflements, each more baffling than the last. So even though it's hard not to feel the joy that's all throughout this album, it's also impossible to avoid thinking about what could have been. Am I missing anything here, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: You glossed over her rise to prominence with the Fugees, which led to writing gigs for Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, a failed relationship with a fellow Fugee, and a new relationship with Bob Marley's son Julian—a relationship that led to Hill having a baby, which helped her get over a nasty case of writer's block. The resulting album relied heavily on those previously mentioned relationship experiences. After the album, a few of the musicians turned around and sued Hill for writing credits and money. Also, RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan was originally tapped to produce but that fell through. Personally, had RZA produced this joint, I would be a little more excited about doing this record.
Also, I really like “Doo Wop (That Thing).” But who doesn't?
Klinger: Hm, yes, that is a good one. So I take it you are less taken in by this record's charms than, say, Time magazine's 1998 music critic. Fair enough. I am apparently more susceptible than you are, because I think this is a pretty gosh-darn good record overall. Sure, it's probably about 20 minutes too long, but when it's firing on all cylinders it pretty clearly earns its place here on the Great List. Plus I find those kids talking about love in the interstitial bits to be nothing short of delightful. I'm pretty sure this is the only time I've ever turned up the "skits" on a record. In fact, I'm reluctant to even call them skits because they go so far to anchor the album emotionally. Plus the music beds behind them remind me of the '70s—some of it could have been used on the TV show Taxi, which is never a bad thing.
Of course, there are a few times when I wish the song would end and those kids would start talking again, but by and large I think there's a good balance here. Plus I think it's worth noting that Hill's take on hip-hop/R&B/neo-soul whatever is coming from a relatively comfortable background, what with her childhood acting and her Columbia University education and so forth. Somehow, she makes her experience seem universal, and although we do get a sense in a song like "To Zion" that her tendency toward complaininess might be right around the corner, that fades away once a celebratory track like "Every Ghetto, Every City" kicks in. Celebratory, Mendelsohn!
Mendelsohn: Any misgivings I have about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill stem from the fact that I was just getting into college when this album hit and it was everywhere. Everywhere. The ladies loved it because Hill was speaking the universal language of love. The guys loved it because it made them look sensitive and the ladies loved that. And people who didn't know who Lauryn Hill was loved "Doo Wop" because it is catchy and has a great beat and is just down-right pleasing to the ears. By the time 1999 rolled around, Hill racked up a bunch of Grammys and I just got sick of hearing about it. Except "Doo Wop". It is so hard to hate that song.
Listening to the record again after so many years, I don't think there is any question Hill put together an exceptional piece of music synthesis. You are right about her tendency to overextend some of the material, but I think a lot of that comes from a certain exuberance for making music. Not just because she had finally got over her writer's block, but because there is a genuine love for the act of creation. As she sings in "Superstar", music is supposed to inspire. After so much sadness and loneliness on the Great List, that message is pretty uplifting. But that's only if you ignore most of the rest of the album that deals with all of her ex-boyfriends.
Klinger: Eh, we're all entitled to a good wallow every now and then, and a huge portion of the albums we've covered have been about the minutiae of love lost. But I keep coming back to the idea that for whatever reason, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a feat that somehow Hill was unable to even come close to repeating—another point that comes up every once in a while as we make our way through the Great List. Take, for example, the Strokes, another group who were groomed for a saviorhood that they were ultimately unable to live up to (sorry, guys). (I could also make an argument for Television and maybe Love, but I adore those two albums way too much to speak of them in any way that could be construed as disparaging.)
Is it possible that, in positioning someone as a musical messiah, we're creating impossible expectations? Whatever success that she attained with the Fugees, it really did pale in comparison to the exalting she was subjected to with the release of this album. And part of the shame of that is that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a very good, albeit somewhat flawed record that hints at even better things yet to come. Did the press put too much pressure on her? Did she put too much pressure on herself (the album does feel like a grand statement of purpose at times)? Or does this album feel like one that's very much at home here in the mid-100s of the Great List?
Mendelsohn: The Great List is full of one-offs. It’s tough to group Television and Love into that category, maybe because they are so entrenched in the canon, maybe because we don't want to think about their future failings or failure at having a future (man, that sounds callous). But there is also Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Dusty Springfield, and so on. The Strokes have more in common with Hill than those previously mentioned groups but at the same time, they were able to move beyond the whole saviorhood hubbub and continue to make music. They didn't live up to the expectations, but when you look back upon the list, not living up to expectations is the norm. Now, is that the artists' fault? Or are we, the listeners, the critics, the receivers of the art, to blame for placing such high expectations on such an obviously subjective experience?
In the case of Hill, I think everyone is at fault. We the listeners elevated The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to such great heights that there was nowhere else to go but down. We've seen numerous acts react adversely to the over adulation of commercial success. Radiohead released Kid A and got even bigger. Neil Young made music in the ditch for a couple of years. Hill chose to re-imagine herself as a folk singer. She ditched the hip-hop beats and released an MTV Unplugged record full of half-baked ideas that didn't go over so well. After that she went retreated to the safety of her family, disgusted by the music industry. And then got tossed in jail for tax evasion. Not exactly the best way to keep your name in the news.
Beyond all of the intrigue and could-have-beens, we still have The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a solid record that will remain in the mid-100s of the list not only as a testament to Hill's talent but also as her place in the neo-soul narrative and the overall evolution of music as creative expression.