“You know I only say it cuz I’m truly genuine/ Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.”
In February 2017, the singer, songwriter, producer, and actress Lauryn Hill made headlines when she showed up three hours late to her own concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the most egregious incident on a tour already marred by delays and no-shows caused by the artist’s apparent inability to “align her energies with the time,” and cemented the myth of Hill as a brilliant artist–cum–troubled has-been who just couldn’t get it together. Looking back on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 20 years after its acclaimed release is an exercise in witnessing promise unfulfilled.
Hill’s first solo release after leaving the Fugees debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and broke the record for first-week sales by a female artist. Miseducation then spent an additional 90 weeks in the Billboard 200 before setting the record for most Grammy nominations received by a woman in a single year. She won five of the 10 awards she was nominated for—including Best New Artist and Album of the Year—and became the first woman to nab that many Grammys in one night. (Her Grammy-winnings record remained intact until Beyoncé won six awards in 2010 for I Am… Sasha Fierce.) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the only studio album she recorded, eventually sold more than 19 million copies worldwide.
In 2007, my high-school boyfriend gave me a copy of Miseducation. He had burned a cd for me after the melody of “Ex-Factor” had been stuck in my head for days, but I couldn’t identify the song. I still remember playing that gleaming cd in my mother’s car stereo, reconnecting with a song that was haunting me for no reason. The song remained on repeat throughout my freshman year of college because it somehow tapped into a hopeful melancholy I couldn’t put into words. I was 8 years old when the album was released, but nine years later, it still felt like a jolt to the heart. And while nine years is a long time, so much more has changed for Hill, the music industry, and the world over the past 20 years.
In 1998, there was no social media, music-streaming services, or widespread access to the internet, but The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill still went platinum eight times and vaulted Hill to a level of fame she wasn’t ready for—and that she never adjusted to. “I think Lauryn grew to despise who Lauryn Hill was,” noted one of her friends in a 2003 Rolling Stone profile. “Not that she despised herself as a human being, but she despised the manufactured international-superstar magazine cover girl who wasn’t able to go out of the house looking a little tattered on a given day.” And then one day, Hill, in her friend’s words, said, “Fuck it.”
After the disastrous 2002 release of MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, Hill’s live follow-up album to Miseducation, it became clear that the artist was in pain. On the recording, she speaks repeatedly of feeling imprisoned by the artifice of celebrity. “I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage,” she says during one of the song introductions. “I couldn’t be a real person because you’re too afraid of what your public will say. At that point, I had to do some dying.” The Village Voice declared Unplugged No. 2.0 “probably not the worst album ever released by an artist of substance,” the first sign that the artist who had been the music industry’s pulse only a few years earlier was already fading into obscurity.
The decline of Hill’s career is a cautionary tale for artists who refuse to bend to the whims of the celebrity machine. The world has never had much patience for Black women who don’t play by the rules, and even less for Black women who behave as though the rules don’t exist in the first place. (In 2013, when her magnum opus turned 15, Hill was serving a three-month sentence for tax evasion.) So it’s funny that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill can now be interpreted as a fundamentally conservative album. On the smooth groove of “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill chastises women for wearing weaves and men for buying into a materialistic culture: “Showing off your ass cause you’re thinkin’ it’s a trend/ Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again/ You know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine/ Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.”
The world has never had much patience for Black women who don’t play by the rules, and even less for Black women who behave as though the rules don’t exist in the first place.
The themes that were so acclaimed in 1998 are now rightly regarded by some as a version of respectability politics. On “To Zion,” she likens the choice to have her son to a divine intervention from God. On “Lost Ones,” she uses Biblical references to reprimand an ex for losing her. But there’s just still something about Hill. Her record-breaking studio album remains part of the soundtrack to so many people’s lives, a time capsule of the moment when one of the mainstream music industry’s most celebrated musicians was an uncompromising Black woman with a single-minded vision. Even today, the most famous rappers in the world are sampling her hits, with both Cardi B’s “Be Careful” and Drake’s “Nice For What” interpolating “Ex-Factor.” We turned Hill into a living ghost, crushing her under the weight of our expectations and then punishing her when she could no longer rise. The artifice of Ms. Lauryn Hill, which is how she prefers to be addressed, was always more alluring than the truth.