Within one week earlier this year, two absolutely massive artists released singles that were both built around a sample of the same song. That song, Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” turns 20 tomorrow, as does The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, the album from which it came. “Ex-Factor” cannot possibly be an easy song to sample. “Ex-Factor” samples the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple,” which in turn samples Gladys Knight & The Pips’ cover of “The Way We Were.” So anyone who samples “Ex-Factor” has to split songwriting royalties with a whole host of people. It should be prohibitively complicated and expensive. But people still do it. Drake and Cardi B both did it this year, and Drake’s “Nice For What” is probably still the biggest single that anyone has released this year.
So why? Why go to all that trouble, all that expense, to get a piece of Hill’s song? The answer gets at the whole point of sampling in the first place. It gets at why Lauryn Hill used that Wu-Tang bassline, or why RZA used that sped-up version of Gladys Knight’s voice, or why Knight was singing a Barbra Streisand song in the first place. Artists sample songs because they want to capture the feeling of the original song, to reframe it, and to make it their own. Over the years, a whole lot of people have sampled Lauryn Hill a whole lot of times. Kanye West did it. J. Cole did it. Drake did it on “Draft Day,” years before “Nice For What.” Lauryn Hill is someone who has left an imprint on a whole generation of listeners, many of whom became musicians. And she left that imprint while only releasing one studio album — burning a hole in our collective psyche with that album and then leaving it a smoking void when she promptly disappeared afterward.
Last month, I watched Hill perform all of Miseducation in Chicago. For much of her set, she seemed to be at war with the album, or maybe with the idea of performative nostalgia. She radically reworked every song on the album, using none of the original arrangements and transforming the songs into tough-to-recognize vamps. She played chicken with the countdown clock at the edge of the stage, leaving the very real possibility that she’d have her set shut down before she got to the album’s biggest songs. (Didn’t happen. She made it through.) Watching her, I thought of this as a sign that maybe she didn’t like the album, or that she didn’t like the way people still hold it as this pinnacle of achievement.
I was wrong. Hill loves the album. That much became apparent toward the end of the show, when she took a moment between songs to talk about the album, about its lingering effects, about the ways it has affected so many people. She remembered recording it in New Jersey and in Jamaica. She alluded to the chaos happening in her life when she was putting it together. She said that it was “the people’s album,” that she was maybe just the conduit that brought it into the world. After the set, when most headlining artists immediately jet for the SUV waiting offstage, she walked over to the waiting throng in the VIP section, smiling and hugging people and posing for pictures. And she seemed just as overwhelmed as the people she was meeting.
Two decades on, Miseducation remains such a strange and singular work that it’s hard to remember the context in which it was made. Hill had been one third of the Fugees, the Jersey boho-rap trio who had suddenly and unexpectedly surged into mass popularity, largely on the strength of Hill’s cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” She was the obvious star of the group, and yet the rapper and producer Wyclef Jean (with whom Hill was, at the time, having an affair) was doing whatever he could to soak up all the plaudits and the recognition. Jean was working to make himself an inescapable presence, a sort of international-pop Puff Daddy. He was the first Fugee to release a solo album. It was pretty good. Hill rapped on it. But Hill was restless, and then she was disgusted. She and Jean went through a bad breakup, and she got sick of sharing the stage with the less-talented guy who did backflips and played guitar behind his head. She wanted to venture off on her own.
Hill’s success as a solo artist was never assured. That’s weird to think about now. She was this tremendous presence, glamorous and introspective and flashy and deep. She was the best rapper in her rap group, and she was also the only one who could sing. A solo album should’ve been a no-brainer. But she, and those close to her, claim that Columbia Records didn’t want her to go solo, that the label just wanted more Fugees music. She had to exist within the context of late-’90s pop stardom, a deeply goofy place. Hill’s incandescent version of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” a Miseducation bonus track and a minor radio hit, was apparently originally recorded for the soundtrack of the deeply forgettable Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts thriller Conspiracy Theory. And when the album finally came together, one of the first things that people noticed was that she wasn’t really rapping much on it. (For whatever dumb reason, this really annoyed me at first. I remember buying Miseducation on cassette on the same day as I bought Canibus’ debut album Can-I-Bus, and I’m pretty sure I listened to Can-I-Bus first.)
In short order, though, Miseducation became one of the only unanimous-approval mass-culture works I can remember in my lifetime. It sold 18 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammys, including Album Of The Year. It topped year-end lists at practically every publication that published year-end lists of albums. (The critics who voted in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll pulled the contradictory move of awarding the top spot to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, but even there, it was practically a dead heat.) To reach for a present-day parallel for how popular and beloved Miseducation was in its day, I can’t name a piece of music. There just isn’t anything that can compete. I have to reach for something like Black Panther.
To figure out how Miseducation resonated the way that it did, all you really have to do is listen. Miseducation remains a hell of a pop-music achievement. It’s an album that bursts with life and feeling and inventiveness. We’re used to hearing artists switch back and forth between rapping and singing, but nobody had ever done it with the breezy, self-assured ease that Hill brought to Miseducation. She made the album with the same small core of musicians and producers, pulling a group of undistinguished talents from New Jersey and rechristening them New-Ark. She strove for imperfection: the warmth and crackle of classic-soul vinyl, the vocal rasps and strains of ’70s singers. She managed to make the entire thing sound both wide-ranging and cohesive, something that was increasingly difficult after rap’s late-’90s pop explosion. She resisted all efforts to turn the album into something commercially friendly, which is exactly how she ended up making a commercial juggernaut.
Everything clicks into place on Miseducation. The hardest song doesn’t even have any rapping on it; it’s the one where Hill and Mary J. Blige wail post-breakup lamentations over a sped-up break from Raekwon’s “Ice Cream.” The happiest song isn’t the one about Hill’s newly born son or the one about how nice it is to stay in all day and have sex; it’s the one where Hill remembers the granular textures and images of her old neighborhood. The few superstar guests on the album — Blige, D’Angelo, Carlos Santana — never showcase their skills or overwhelm Hill. Instead, they’re there to work as sounding boards, as added textures. And the album’s sound draws from rap and reggae and ’70s soul with organic ease.
As much as Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, Miseducation is a portrait of a young woman at a very specific point in her life. In just a few years, Hill had dropped out of college, gotten head-spinningly famous, gone through bitter breakups both musical and romantic, found new love, and given birth to her first child. (She was 23 when she made Miseducation, just in case you need a further reminder that you are not doing enough with your life.) She was also dealing with the fucked-up realities of being a woman in the music industry. So “To Zion,” Hill’s song for her infant son, isn’t a simple anthem of motherly love. It’s also a recrimination against those who told her not to become a mother: “I knew his life deserved a chance / But everybody told me to be smart.” “Lost Ones,” “Ex-Factor,” and “Forgive Them Father” are utterly devastating shots at Wyclef Jean, though most of us didn’t realize it at the time.
There is anger in Miseducation, and yet it’s not an angry album. It’s full of the blissful energy of someone who’s getting to do her own thing for the first time ever. There are love songs and sex songs. There’s acceptance, too; “Everything Is Everything,” maybe the album’s best song, is at least partially about happily giving up control, about learning to willingly submit to the machinations of fate. And throughout, there’s a giddy sense of freedom, of every possibility being explored. Hill knew she was, against too many odds, getting to make the album that she wanted to make. You can hear that triumph, that exultation, in her voice.
Of course, she didn’t do it by herself, and there is the thorny matter of credit. After the album’s world-shattering success, the members of New-Ark sued Hill, demanding more money and more credit. They settled out of court, and nobody’s ever been entirely sure who did what on the album, who deserves the acclaim. Just last week, the jazz pianist Robert Glasper called Hill a thief in a radio interview: “The one thing you did that was great, you didn’t do.”
Hill never properly followed up the album, so we haven’t really heard what she can do without New-Ark. The few solo tracks she’s released over the years haven’t set the world on fire, and the new arrangements on the Miseducation songs that she uses in her live shows are often downright bad. (The persistent rumor, never confirmed, is that she has somehow lost the rights to use the original arrangements in her live shows. This seems very unlikely, but I’m not a lawyer, so who knows.) Then again, it’s not like the members of New-Ark have gone on to tremendous fame or acclaim without Hill. So maybe this is just one of those cases where everyone involved was operating at peak capacity, where things worked in a way that they could never work again.
The first line Hill raps on the album is this: “It’s funny how money changes situation.” In the years after Miseducation, we all learned just how true that was. Hill was plenty famous as a Fugee. With Miseducation, though, she became one of the biggest stars in the world. Money and fame and adulation changed everything. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this level of celebrity is just straight-up bad for you. Some take to it. Some insulate themselves with yes-men and well-wishers. Some get lost in addiction. Some die. Hill just vanished.
To date, Hill’s only post-Miseducation album is 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a live acoustic double album that features no previously released songs. It has its adherents, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it through the whole album in one sitting. After that, basically nothing. After Zion (who is now a father himself), Hill gave birth to five more children. She got deeply invested in some kind of vaguely shady religious leader. She very briefly reunited with the Fugees, playing two shows (the BET Awards and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party) and releasing one song. She put out a few solo tracks. She toured, leaving her own fans persistently perplexed and disappointed even when she bothered to show up. More than anything, she retreated. She withdrew into her own world.
But even if Hill never fully reemerges, even if she never releases another album, that will take away nothing from Miseducation. It remains a towering achievement, a lush and full and personal vision. It could’ve gone wrong a million ways. Wyclef could’ve produced it. Hill could’ve decided that she wanted to compete with Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. Hell, she could’ve decided that she wanted to compete with Will Smith. She could’ve lost all bearing on her audience, the way she did with the MTV Unplugged album. She could’ve retreated a couple of years earlier. But Lauryn Hill did none of those things. She left us with an album that was special then, one that remains just as special now.