By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"It's silly when girls sell their soul because it's in/Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans/Fake nails done by Koreans," raps Lauryn Hill on "Doo Wop (That Thing)," the first single from her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This disc is the hip-hop & song, personal manifesto that Latifah's been trying to birth for three albums now. It's the political tract Souljah couldn't pull off even in a Technicolor dream. It's damn near brilliant.
Miseducation is an album whose beats are hard and funky, that blends girl-group harmonies with ghetto raps, fierce patois with slinky R&B, and whose warm, live instrumentation (including a turn by Carlos Santana) uses samples like condiments, not the entree.It folds political ideology into personal theater (and vice versa), but without the consumerist, adolescent bent that defines the ghetto-fabulous aesthetic and Trump-style politics that rule hip-hop right now. Lauryn's dropping knowledge, unafraid to be pedantic, and using her own missteps and hard-won insights as primary text. There are no "gotta lotta Prada" rhymes, because she knows that Big Willie stylin' ain't what three centuries of Negro blood's been shed for.
With Miseducation, Hill (the soul of the Fugees, no matter how ubiquitous Wyclef becomes) functions in much the same way Franklin did in the late '60s. She reminds us that hip-hop's identity battles are about something deeper and more fragile than pursuit of the benjamins. She connects the dots between bedroom politics, affairs of the heart and the devastating consequences of rampant capitalism. So a line about artists selling out, spoken in the lyrically and thematically dense "Lost Ones," just as easily works as a warning to a floundering lover: "It's funny how money change a situation/miscommunication leads to complication/My emancipation don't fit your equation . . ." And "Superstar" (which could just as well be titled "Dear Puffy") contains the withering hook: "Come on baby, light my fire/Everything you drop is so tired/music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain't getting no higher?"
Hill's flow is tough but feminine, a contradiction that hip-hop is still wrestling with but that she sidesteps by simply being both; her singing alto is marbled with thick, fat ribbons of sensuality and warmth, street wisdom and compassion. Like Chaka, she doubles her vocals, does her own backgrounds, pulls key phrases out of the verse and repeats them for maximum effect. Others have done it since Chaka, of course, but few have been able to put a signature twist on it like Hill has. While the sum effect is body blows tucked inside political commentary, it also means that Hill's love songs - whether addressed to her young son, Zion, or to a wayward man, or to the object of her growing desire - are old-school in the best sense: There's not a phony moment in them. Her duets (the eroto-spiritual, lovin' till the breakuhdawn "Nothing Even Matters" with D'Angelo, and her homegirls-break-it-down session "I Used To Love Him" with Mary J. Blige) have integrity because the guest artists complement Hill's own vision; they're not used to fill in outrageous gaps, as with most current R&B and hip-hop cameos. Her confessional declarations ("To Zion," "When It Hurts So Bad," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You") have the power of late-night whispers, pulled from somewhere beyond self-consciousness.
Compare, for instance, Hill's "To Zion" with Will Smith's cornball "Two of Us." Smith raps, "It's a full-time job to be a good dad/You got so much more stuff than I had," a couplet that's fucked-up on so many levels, and the first thought it brings to mind is, Hey, Will, why not just book your boy into the Corey Feldman Suite at Betty Ford's right now? By contrast, Hill (currently pregnant with her second child) tells of waiting outside her baby boy's door while he sleeps, and of being spiritually rewired by her maternal role; her repeated, ecstatic shouts of "My joy!" at the song's end roll off her tongue with gospel fervor.
She turns seriously funky on the Stevie Wonder-ish "Every Ghetto, Every City" - two parts "I Wish" (which is actually referenced in the song) for every one part "Living for the City." It's a potent reminder that the hip-hop autobiography, filled with minute, personal details, is still one of pop culture's most viscerally thrilling joy rides.
Still, nothing on the album is as powerful as "Ex-Factor," which hurls you back onto Aretha's old sofa, clutching your head, folded in two and gagging on rejection. The hook alone is devastating: "Cry for me, cry for me/You said you'd die for me/Give to me, give to me/Why won't you live for me . . ." There it is, the gap between declaration and deed, the painful grind of being with someone who would literally take a bullet for you - and would rather do so than extend the gifts of ordinary decency and kindness. "Tell me who I have to be," she implores, "to get some reciprocity."
If The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (album title of the year) is read as one woman's story, she's someone who comes off as being on surer footing leading a protest, organizing a picket line or rallying the troops than she is in sustaining her love life. That's a tragic way to live, and subtextually speaks volumes about the unchanged, difficult lot of the thinking woman, the political female, the woman-child as artist - particularly a black woman with race consciousness. But it makes for hella-fine art. The cool thing about Miseducation is that, if nothing else, it's the sound of tragedies being shouted down. Sometimes with a whisper. Aretha, whose single "A Rose Is Still a Rose" Lauryn produced earlier this year (the best thing Lady Soul's done in a decade), should be proud.