FORGET YOUR PREJUDICES one-time, two-times. The idea of the Fugees as a radical and innovative hip-hop band has, shall we say, [I]dissipated [/I]a little over the past couple of years, in the wake of those lucrative but credibility-free cover versions and the scree of novelty hits perpetuated by Wyclef Jean and the feckless Pras Michel.
Still, at their best, the Fugees are/were capable of drawing lines between late-’90s American urban music and the conscious soul and reggae of the ’70s to produce a fluent and impassioned kind of hip-hop. This is the cultural imperative around which Lauryn Hill’s remarkable solo shot pivots. Imagine a rap LP made in 1975 with the kind of political and personal scope of ‘What’s Going On’: or the idea of a young Stevie Wonder hitting his peak in 1998. That’s what we’re dealing with here.
At first glance, ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ appears a worthy but unappetising prospect; a concept album about the injustices of the music business – and Hill’s ensuing battles with the array of fools, sexists and sceptics massed against her – that uses all the industry’s machinery (and a guest roster of Mary J Blige, D’Angelo, Carlos Santana and, well, It Bites’ Francis Dunnery) even as it denounces it. It’s to Hill’s credit, however, that emotional heroism prevails over poor-superstar whingeing, most unavoidably on the frail lullaby ‘To Zion’, where she serenades her son Zion and details the professional pressure on her to have an abortion with stark candour.
Essentially, ‘The Miseducation…’ is a document of triumph. Hill writes, arranges and produces virtually everything on this long and involving album with the kind of creative control and sure-footedness most artists wouldn’t dare dream of. The emotional richness, vigour and range is astounding, from the clipped ‘Living For The City’-style funk of ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’, to the bright reggae-gospel of ‘Forgive Them Father’, to the spectral Wu-stabs of ‘Final Hour’. The video for the irresistibly swinging ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ makes explicit Hill’s talent for locating the common themes between different eras of black music, as the action splits seamlessly between a ’60s-costumed block party and a laid-back ’90s street jam. At the heart of it all she’s a euphoric visionary, revelling in the focus and the power.
There are elements here that may irritate: Hill’s propensity to stretch the odd word to a histrionic 23 syllables or so; cutesy, superfluous classroom skits about “L-O-V-E” that chop up the flow of great songs; the frequent declarations of how brilliant God is; and one throwaway hidden track, a karaoke version of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, that Hill reportedly fought against being included. But in the face of so much overwhelmingly beautiful music – check the dissection of a failing relationship, ‘Ex-Factor’, where Hill soars into the transcendent territory of Aretha Franklin – such quibbles seem merely churlish.
As an article of faith in the possibilities of music to heal and inspire, and an album to convince doubters that late-’90s R&B is capable of measuring up to its classic ’60s and ’70s precedents, ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ is essential. Listen and learn.