Black History Month: “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

Soulful and real, deep and cutting, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” remains one of the greatest albums of a generation. Everything really is everything as the album touches on the experiences and hardships of the modern woman. From “Ex-Factor” to “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to “Lost Ones” and “To Zion,” every verse and every lyric speaks to some aspect of the human condition and presents Hill’s unique take on life and popular culture.

Released in August 1998, Hill’s debut solo album cemented her spot as one of the greatest musicians of all time. In 2017, NPR ranked the album No. 2 on a list of “The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women.” It sold more than 423,000 copies in its first week and topped the Billboard 200 for four weeks and the Billboard R&B Albums chart for six weeks.

It went on to sell about 8 million copies in the U.S. and 12 million copies worldwide. “In it, Hill refuses to shy away from topics often left unspoken, injecting classroom love lesson interludes and hard-hitting lyrics about how money changes people in the banger ‘Lost Ones’,” wrote NPR. At the time, people hadn’t heard anything like it.

The album opens with the ringing of a school bell. A teacher does the roll call, asking for Hill again and again, ­but she never answers. Each track is interspersed with ruminations on love from schoolchildren, showing us that age does not dictate wisdom.

Its impact on hip-hop and culture has lasted through the years. According to the music streaming service Tidal, the album was essential in bringing hip-hop to the mainstream. The record made history at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards when it won the title of Album of the Year, leading the Grammys to recognize more work by hip-hop artists.

Photo: AP / Reed Saxon

Lauryn Hill grew up in New Jersey, attending Columbia High School. She was a gifted student who played the piano, started her school’s gospel choir, and succeeded academically. But she never described herself as a lover of academics. “I had a love for — I don’t know if it was necessarily for academics, more than it just was for achieving, period. If it was academics, if it was sports, if it was music, if it was dance, whatever it was, I was always driven to do a lot in whatever field or whatever area I was focusing on at the moment,” she said.

In school, she joined the Fugees with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. The group’s debut album received little attention. But their second album, “The Score,” received a Grammy and sold 6 million copies. With hits such as Hill’s rendition of “Killing Me Softly,” she was already well-known for her singing and lyricism well before “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Fugees split because of tension between Jean and Hill. They had a romantic relationship that caused turmoil in the group. Eventually, Hill met Rohan Marley and got pregnant with her first child before her album was released. Her song “To Zion” speaks to how she felt about keeping her son despite friends and family telling her that the decision would jeopardize her career.

After the success of her solo album, Hill retreated and dropped out of planned projects, citing the pressures of being in the public eye. In the end, the most important thing to her was remaining real.