In the late summer of 1998, Lauryn Hill released what is widely considered the greatest hip hop album of all time, and one of the greatest albums of any genre, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It is a unique blend of R&B, gospel, soul, reggae, and rap recorded mostly at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studio in Jamaica. Miseducation is an impeccably produced work of a huge band of musicians, and its lyrics are unparalleled testimonies to heartbreak and renewal, to freedom from the chains of the world, and reliance on the living God who reigns above. With the exception of three or four Bob Dylan records, there is no album ever made that weaves Scripture through the loom of modern life like this one does. There is simply no performer like Lauryn Hill and no record like her Miseducation.
On February 16, 2021, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was certified “diamond” by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), joining a short list of albums in the history of music that have sold ten million copies or more. In light of this achievement, I want to encourage everyone to drive that number up even higher. Miseducation is Lauryn Hill’s first and only studio album, shrouded in a mystique that continues to grow as its creator stays out of the limelight. A faithful listener with ears to hear will quickly discover what I appreciate more with each spin: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is propelled by the power of God, and it can change your life. It continues to change mine.
The miseducation from which Hill emerges on the album points to a peace and clarity that are “not as the world gives” (John 14:27). Hill composed the album during an intense period of productivity that she experienced while pregnant with her son, Zion, her first of six children. Hill’s lyrics are fueled by a perfect blend of power and vulnerability. Her voice also projects defiance to a world that tries to teach a woman to think of her unborn child as a disposable choice instead of a gift whose blessing cannot be refused. In “To Zion,” Hill imagines herself fulfilling a purpose like Mary’s. She sings,
Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly, overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man-child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
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.
The negative principles of Hill’s miseducation also include sexual promiscuity and giving yourself away to something less than God. It turns out the strong move is to avoid concupiscence. In the video for the album’s number-one hit song, “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” we see a split screen of New York City, with one half set in 1967 and the other half in 1998. The song is equal parts throwback Motown and modern rap; but the message is the same for all eras: “Watch out!” Guys, but also girls, are too often only focused on “that thing.” Yes, that thing. The song is positively Augustinian.
Many of the other songs on the album are inspired thoughts about the failure of human relationships, rooted in the fall. “Ex-Factor” is a lush song about recovering from a breakup and was likely inspired by Hill’s rocky relationship with her musical partner from the Fugees, Wyclef Jean. Another cut, “I used to love him,” follows in the same vein. On this one, Hill sings hopefully about redemption after mistaking lust for love: “How many things I pray the father will forgive.” On “When it Hurts so Bad,” a harp intro goes into a reggae steel drum, giving way to a smooth R&B groove. In the lyrics, real love versus an emotionally manipulative and physically illicit counterfeit is on display again. “Nothing Even Matters” is a welcome contrast—a mellow love song for Rohan Marley that imagines virtue in its proper place of honor.
“Forgive Them Father” is an appeal for grace in the wake of betrayal. Hill raps,
Why black people always be the ones to settle?
March through these streets like Soweto,
and then she sings,
Like Cain and Abel, Caesar and Brutus,
Jesus and Judas, backstabbers do this.
“The Final Hour” explores the corruption of the world, and the oppression of the weak, because of the deathly vice of greed. Hill points towards an apocalyptic resolution to it all:
Our survival since our arrival
Documented in the Bible
Like Moses and Aaron
Things gon’ change, that’s apparent. . . .
And I remain calm readin’ the 73 Psalm
’Cause with all this on I got the world in my palm.
Every other song on the record is magnificent, and the tracks are woven together by interludes of a teacher in a classroom talking to children about love. I sometimes hear the students’ precocious responses in my head at random moments of my life. They are endearing and unforgettable.
In a rare 2000 interview, Hill described the inspiration for making her masterpiece. “Every time that God navigates my ship, there’s nothing cerebral going on. There’s very little thought. It’s almost as if I have the directions.” Hill thinks of herself as a conduit, almost echoing St. Paul, who told the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Like the Gospel itself, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a fearless and aggressive work; but it also drips with tenderness. It is the portrait of teeth gnashed in anger at the world as it is, as well as a soft cheek stained with tears of joy at what it could be, with God’s help. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill preaches good news.
Miseducation may be one of the greatest artistic expressions of black American identity and black womanhood; and it also transcends its particular context to speak to, and change, the hearts of everyone who falls in love with it as I have.
In the same 2000 interview, Hill noted that she finds success as a songwriter and performer “as long as I remember that the glory is his and not my own. . . . The object is to glorify God first, and in doing that you get glorified.”
Put on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for a dose of that glory.