Today marks exactly twenty years since the release of Lauryn Hill’s seminal debut (and to date, only) solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Easily one of the best albums ever made in any genre, Miseducation has had a significant and lasting impact on me over the past two decades. It’s also the first album by a black artist — male or female — that I bought, at a time when teen pop was dominating the charts.
Whilst most of the writing surrounding this anniversary is rightly discussing the album’s legacy and what it means to hear it in 2018, I wanted to focus on the theme of love and how it’s interwoven throughout as a means of inspiration and education via the conversations that result from its title.
The opening track on The Miseducation is somewhat blandly titled Intro but it sets the scene by introducing a classroom registration morning in Newark, New Jersey. A school bell signals the start of the day before a tutor reads out a list of student names. As the students respond, he finally reaches Lauryn Hill’s name, but there’s no reply. Her absence prompts a further two name calls, but again there’s no response.
The fade out on this intro is important; anyone paying close attention to the details can understand that she’s either playing hooky or absent for other means that we’re not aware of.
Looking at the album cover, a carving of Hill’s face has been scratched into her school desk, presumably by herself (the pencil in the groove at the top above the album title gives the imagery context), perhaps with a compass or some other implement. Seemingly endless school days are often spent daydreaming, in this case carving out a likeness of oneself in a desk. The image has a level of artistry to it that combines creative ambition with a burgeoning curiosity. Its detail and craftsmanship alludes to skill, control and patience.
Like other iconic album covers that seem to be telling a story, our eyes scan over The Miseducation’s, taking its imagery at face value. Yet really looking at it throws up many questions that only surface when listening to the first forty-seven seconds of this seemingly innocuous introduction. The silence when prompted by the tutor to declare her presence is suggestive of the album’s bold cover; she’s absent, but a likeness of herself remains in the classroom. The music coming over the next 68 minutes is Hill’s own personal education on love and life.
Suddenly, The Miseducation becomes a statement of purpose. It is many things, but the album ultimately represents an emotional and spiritual journey. Hill’s absence from the classroom on that particular morning links directly to the album title. Throughout the course of listening, it emerges that the sequence and structure of songs is extremely important, serving as a kind of call and response to more of these school insights.
As we return to the classroom when the final vocals of Lost Ones echo out, the tutor seems more interested in discovering what his students have to say about love than anything they could learn from a textbook or a dictionary. He spells out the letters L O V E in chalk on the blackboard.
Giggles are heard as the students begin to predict what the word might be. He begins the way any good teacher would in order to introduce such a weighty theme, by asking if any of them know any songs or movies about love. Calls of “Romeo and Juliet!” and “Titanic!” give a clear indication that this is a present-day dialogue taking place and not a recording from many years ago.
(Obviously these conversations were recorded in 1998 prior to the album’s release, but I had always wondered how the time scale worked for Hill’s supposed absence in the classroom (she was 23 years old at the time) as this fly-on-the-wall insight is clearly focused on a group of much younger students.)
This particular interspersion fades out just at the point at which we’re beginning to be drawn into the conversation and the beautiful Ex-Factor begins. Yet the most enduring moment of that first conversation is one that I probably missed many times, but one which I can’t not hear all these years later. As the tutor asks his students if they know any songs about love, one anonymous voice whispers out, “I know a lot about love.”
Crucially, I can’t tell if the voice is male or female. This brave statement gets buried amongst the excited chatter of students discussing love, but its placement is an intentional device on Hill’s part to direct our attention to the fact that this young child’s understanding of love encompasses not just the romantic traditions that we first might think of.
The classroom conversations continue by embellishing on ideas of love. We hear about a young black man’s personal definition of love, but it’s a minimal effort, perhaps to underline the struggle many men feel with reconciling their emotions in face of societal rules and codes on what constitutes masculinity. The young women have more of an opinion and also, crucially, more of a need to express what they feel.
The tutor asks them if they think they’re too young to love, if they think television and music confuse what society thinks of love. By utilising these conversations, Hill uses them as a canvas onto which she projects her own ideas of love at a point when she had personally experienced a lot in a short period of time.
Occasionally criticised by listeners for ‘disrupting the flow’ of the album, the classroom dialogues function in a more sophisticated way than the kind of interludes that were commonplace on hip-hop and R&B albums released around the same time. They add thematic weight to the album in a way that strengthens a message instead of merely breaking up the flow, so as to keep the listener engaged.
The Miseducation is a forward-thinking album and the progression through its run time seems to draw on this, quite literally. The maternal ballad To Zion exudes a beautiful onwardness as tribal drums march rhythmically to Carlos Santana’s acoustic guitar. I Used To Love Him, a duet with Mary J. Blige, follows directly on from When It Hurts So Bad; both songs work in tandem to express the profundity of the end of a relationship, the former caught in the mire with all the hurt and confusion that comes packaged with it, whilst the latter reviews the end of that relationship in an almost clinical and rudimentary fashion: “I used to…love him…but now I don’t!”
Even the classroom conversations that are so integral to the album’s theme of love become fleeting. Soundtracked by acoustic guitar or Rhodes piano, they give way to faster, more urgent instrumentals, as though time were moving briskly, shifting and shaping, almost running out. The Miseducation focuses on Hill’s storied past and present, but with one eye firmly fixed on the future.
The very fact that Lauryn Hill is absent in the classroom is an incredibly romantic idea itself, because it plays on the idea of fate. It furthers the idea of independence and strength throughout the album in an ambiguous way. Are Hill’s experiences of love and loss a direct result of her missing that class? Could her path in life have played out differently were she there on that day, actively taking part in the conversation? Perhaps some crucial element emerging from that dialogue could have changed her path, but of course there is no correct answer when it comes to matters of the heart. All we have to go by is the music she puts forth.
I always wondered whether the class room dialogue recordings were scripted or not. I’d like to believe that they weren’t.
Somehow, the experience of listening to young men and women talk about their opinions and experiences of love at such an early stage in their lives is endearing. I wonder what those same voices are experiencing of love right now and what they’ve endured over the last twenty years.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a classic album for more reasons than I can count on both hands, but its enduring message of love in all its magnificent polarity is surely the greatest.