Given all that has come in its wake, it is still hard to believe that Lauryn Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill when she was 23 years old. True, Hill had lived plenty of lives by then, had tried on a variety of roles-straight-A student of Maplewood, New Jersey's Columbia High School; founder of her school's gospel choir; promising teen actress stealing scenes in Sister Act 2 and As the World Turns; sole female member of the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning group that the media dubbed "the new conscience of rap"; and of course at her most braggadocious, "Nina Simone, defecating on your microphone." Yet somehow, none of this quite prepared people in the summer of 1998 for the monumental achievement of her first and, to date, only solo studio album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill-a collection of songs as timeless and disparate as the tough-love anthem "Doo Wop (That Thing)," the break-up dirge "Ex-Factor," the fire-starting "Lost Ones," and that tender ode to impending motherhood "To Zion." When an artist makes such a massively successful, groundbreaking, and format-defining work at a precocious age-think Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein at 20 or Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane at 25-it usually inspires the less precocious members of its audience (so roughly, everyone) to feel some combination of adoration and human inferiority: What were you doing with your life when you were 20, or 25, or 23? But maybe, too, there is something inherently youthful and thus reassuringly communal about such be-all-and-end-all swings for the moon. And so I like to temper this vision of an inhumanly precocious Lauryn Hill with the more human hubris of youth. "Lucky for us, like everyone in their twenties," writes Kierna Mayo, the woman who famously put Hill on the cover of the preview issue of Honey magazine, "Hill imagined herself wiser than she really was."
This weekend, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill turns 20, meaning it is nearly as old as Hill was herself when she wrote and recorded it. Its success is still staggering and well documented, and well worth documenting again: It sold 422,624 copies the week it was released, which at the time set the record for highest first-week sales by a female artist. It was nominated for 10 Grammys and won five of them (the most in a single night for a female artist at the time, breaking Carole King's 27-year-old record), including Album of the Year, an award no black woman has won since. Last year, NPR placed it at no. 2 on its list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women, just behind Joni Mitchell's Blue, and the album was also selected to be included in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Worldwide, it has sold more than 19 million copies. Here is a paragraph break so the haters can take a breath.
But Hill's travails throughout the past two decades have been well documented, too. When the album celebrated its 15th birthday, five years ago, Hill was in a minimum-security Connecticut prison serving a three-month term for tax evasion. There have been lawsuits, canceled shows, and accusations about her treatment of backing musicians. But perhaps most deafening, there has been her silence. Hill has released one-off tracks here and there, and her 2002 MTV Unplugged appearance was released as a (polarizing) live album. But she never released another proper album after Miseducation, and when not performing live, Hill has spent much of the past two decades in exile from her stardom, quietly raising six children and devoting herself to various spiritual practices. She rarely gives interviews, but in 2010 she told an NPR reporter who asked why she had stopped releasing new music, "There were a number of different reasons, but partly the support system that I needed was not necessarily in place. There were things about myself, personal-growth things, that I had to go through in order to feel like it was worth it."
And yet around that time Hill began performing again, usually not new material but versions of the classic songs off Miseducation, reworked, sped up, and rearranged sometimes to the point that they were nearly indistinguishable. These performances have been mixed (I've seen her twice: one show was brilliant, the other a disaster, which seems in keeping with the general ratio). There is something both compelling and a little unsettling about how she still seems to be revising, rewriting, and endlessly tweaking the Miseducation songs live, akin to the creative perfectionism that drove Kanye West to continue reworking his 2016 record, The Life of Pablo, as though the album was not fluid enough as a format to contain his creativity. The culture is certainly not finished with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and in some sense neither is she.
As a fan, I have found Hill's refusal to make another record frustrating and at the same time deeply profound: What can be a louder and clearer message of rebellion than, in a culture bloated with noise and excess, to remain quiet when everyone demands that you speak? Hill quickly and summarily achieved nearly every major milestone in the music industry, and then she walked away from it, as if to show that success is not a proven avenue to personal fulfillment. Hill has sometimes been compared to two other prominent black artists of her generation who disappeared at the height of fame's demands: D'Angelo (who worked with her on "Nothing Even Matters" from Miseducation) and Dave Chappelle. "Lauryn Hill said something so apt recently," the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah mused in an interview not long after she'd written a moving essay about her search for Chappelle. "She was late for her show and people complained that she was selfish in her tardiness and she said, 'I gave you all of my twenties.'"
What does The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill mean 20 years later? It's a complicated question, so it is fortunate that one of hip-hop's smartest cultural critics, Joan Morgan, has devoted an entire short book to working it out.
"Routinely lauded for its themes of self-love, empowerment, and broken-heart-bounce-backs," Morgan writes in her incisiveShe Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the record "has earned itself the rank of classic in contemporary American popular culture." But Morgan's book honors the record's spirit not by adding any more height to the pedestal on which it's already been placed, but instead interrogating it, questioning its mythology, and even bringing in some dissenting black female voices to admit they never much felt like the record spoke for them. Says the legendary critic dream hampton, "I don't want to hear anyone say the word 'defecate' anywhere near Nina Simone. Ever."
Morgan is the author of her own influential, just-about-to-celebrate-its-20-year-anniversary work, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. "My goal," she wrote in the introduction to that book, "was to tell my truth as best I could from my vantage point on the spectrum. And then get you to talk about it. This book by its lonesome won't give you the truth. Truth is what happens when your cumulative voices fill in the breaks, provide the remixes, and rework the chorus." She brings this approach to her meditation on Hill, too, placing alongside her own critical voice interludes from the likes of hampton, #MeToo activist Tarana Burke, writer Michaela Angela Davis, and Black Girls Rock founder Beverly Bond. Through this kind of multivalent approach, the lessons of Miseducation come newly alive and worthy of fresh debate.
Perhaps the most compelling dissenting voice in She Begat This belongs to Morgan's 32-year-old goddaughter, who liked the record when she was younger but feels she-and the culture-has outgrown it. "I mean the whole thing is just so Hotep," she tells Morgan one night as the album plays ambiently for the zillionth time in a Harlem restaurant, "She's just so judge-y." If you've revisited the album recently, you know what she's talking about: the infamous "hair weaves like Europeans, fake nails done by Koreans" line, the tut-tutting of her less righteous peers on "Superstar." It's all a little ... "problematic." But in reflecting how Miseducation is no longer young, Morgan is also grappling with what that means for her, the generation of women who believed it spoke for them, and the evolution of the critical language they used to talk about it. "I'm feeling a bit defensive," she writes, responding to her goddaughter. "After all, judge-y is the lack of grace millennials fail to grant the generation prior who didn't grow up with 'binaries are bad!' and 'gender is fluid!' as givens. The ones that came of age before postblackness was a thing and PhDs in queer and hip-hop studies were possible. These were theories we had to learn, sometimes in the midst of creating them."
Consider that once-ubiquitous music video for "That Thing." On the left, we get the '60s doo-wop version of Hill and the community that's gathered to see her ("yo remember back on the boogie when cats used to harmonize"); on the right, the then-present '90s remix. The hard-rock toughness of her voice softens as she admits, "Lauryn is only human, don't think I haven't been through the same predicament." Morgan loves what she calls the "delicious dualism" of the video's split-screen effect, and of 23-year-old Hill's rhymes. "What made that video so powerful was her saying I can be both of these seemingly contradictory things and they're both real," the scholar and activist Dr. Yaba Blay tells her. "I can criticize it and still rock it ... It's that moment in the late '90s when [we] get that shift and we're being encouraged to see ourselves as dynamic, fluid human beings that are both/and, not either/or."
"In some ways, Lauryn defined a new category for us because her body was the intersection of so many different black girl aesthetics," says Michaela Angela Davis. "What made her fascinating was the way she signaled these multiple spaces of blackness in her style. She could signal her hip-hop, signal her glamour, and signal her sexy-sometimes all at the same time. She pulled them all together and made it work."
In some sense, Miseducation has been haunting the radio throughout its 20th anniversary summer. Through "something like serendipity," as the critic Doreen St. Félix put it, two of the season's biggest hits, Drake's "Nice for What" and Cardi B's "Be Careful," both sample Hill's "Ex-Factor." And yet, St. Felix notes, "Cardi B and Drake are both the kinds of artist that, one might imagine, would enervate Hill, a known evangelist of 'real hip-hop.'" She adds, astutely, "Influential art has always spawned second lives that appear to contradict their origins."
The final section of Morgan's book takes place in this present moment, and it does make you wonder whether we've strayed farther than ever from the lessons of Miseducation, if pop culture is even more prone to the sort of hyperbolic expectations that partially explain why Hill fled the public eye. "We turn mortals into gods-queens, if they're only women-and then summarily pick them apart at the first hint of disappointment," Morgan writes. "So we told Hill she was royalty and crowned her the next Nina Simone."
hampton agrees that the world needed a Lauryn Hill so badly in 1998 that it may have gone overboard, and even done her a disservice, in deifying her overnight: "I remember thinking, 'I wish we could deal soberly with Lauryn.' We should have been more sober about how we took her on ... What we did instead was crown her fucking Nina Simone. We did the same thing with D'Angelo. We told him he was Marvin Gaye and we told Lauryn that she was Nina Simone and they each had one fucking album. It wasn't fair to them because they started to believe it."
The lesson is particularly resonant right now, this year. On social media, hyperbolic god-and-goddess worship of celebrities runs rampant. Queen Bey exists in a place so far above censure that SNL parodied what happens when a person suggests that something she's done is anything less than great. Nicki Minaj, who is currently promoting an album called Queen, has been lashing out at anyone who dares question her greatness, sometimes sending her fan base to do her bidding and other times attacking constructive critics herself. But I was reminded reading Morgan's book that criticism at its most measured and thoughtful can be an act of love, an act of seeing another person's humanity and his or her potential for growth. Maybe this is what Hill needed-after all, Lauryn is only human. Perhaps that is how she should have been seen all along.
And so, 20 years later, it once again feels apt to invoke that split screen from the "Doo Wop (That Thing)" video, though this time the '90s are the time capsule on the left of the screen. Here is Ras Baraka, the poet who played the teacher in the album's interstitials: Today he is the mayor of Newark. On one side the crowd dances with abandon, hands in the air; on the other, their phones are aloft, attempting to capture the performer's every move. Or they're just staring downward into their screens, not looking at her at all. The Lauryn of the past is now the '90s version we see in the video-that dreadlocked 20-something in a mini-dress, grooving like the weight of the world on her shoulders was featherlight. On the opposite side of the screen, she's absent, though loquacious in her silence. Maybe it's just telling us the same thing she always was, to look not at the lives of our idols but into our own hearts and minds: How you gonna win when you ain't right within? Maybe, like all of us, she's still working that out, too.