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The Miseducation of Fugee Lauryn Hill

By Josh Kun

AUGUST 31, 1998:  I've met Lauryn Hill only once. I was in Zurich, writing a piece on her fellow Fugee Wyclef Jean during the final nights of The Score's European tour. Because she was six months pregnant and living a pre-natal life of air-conditioned buses and road food, and because my ears were supposed to be tuned to Wyclef dropping The Carnival, I barely spoke to her. We did play a game of darts, though. She won.

This was before using Fugees in a sentence didn't require a question mark. Before Wyclef took hip-hop back to Haiti and got Dylan to pop up in a video. Before Pras broke out of Warren Beatty's Bulworth mouth like a black Athena in the video. And certainly before anyone knew just how creatively deep things would get when Lauryn actually cut that much-whispered-about solo album without her boys by her side.

Lauryn was still just L-boogie, the third but most visible and beloved Fugee, the South Orange girlchild who went from Sister Act 2 to "ooh-la-la-la" 11 million sales in a suburban minute, the tiny songbird double threat who dissed Al Capone for Nina Simone ("defecating on your microphone") and then declared herself, with a momma's-girl wink and a smile, "sweet like licorice, dangerous like syphilis."

Here's the one thing I learned about Lauryn that I could only have guessed from hearing her on CD: she is all aura. You can't be in the same room with her and not know she's there. To crib a line from a Ruth Foreman poem, she makes sunsets procrastinate. She gives rainbows a complex.

More than a year later, she has her first son and we have The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Columbia). Let me assure you. Aura has never been so sweetly preserved.

Miseducation begins with absence. The teacher is calling role in front of a classroom full of teenagers. Name after name is accounted for, then he gets to Lauryn Hill. Nothing. A Bueller-esque moment ensues and he repeats her name. Still nothing. This is how Miseducation begins. The album's 15 songs -- all of which are written, produced, and arranged by Miss Lauryn herself -- are the answer she never gives: 15 different ways of saying "I'm here" and announcing her presence. She has allowed her music -- her disarmingly honest words, her steel-tongued raps, her honey-smoked croons and harmonies, her hip-hopped, Jamaica-dipped soul -- to account for all that she is.

From its bristling b-girl start in the rhymed quatrain spray of "Lost Ones" to its closing higher-love commandment "Tell Him," Miseducation is a soul autobiography in the tradition of Marvin Gaye's wrenching Here My Dear, only with the perspectives reversed. Lauryn gives us a womanchild in the promised land, a caged bird who knows perfectly well why she's singing. Amid the beat-rocked harmonies and hot-butter knowledge boasts of "Everything Is Everything," Lauryn puts a name on it: "I philosophy."

The whole album could follow the lines that begin "I Used To Love Him," her dazzling sister-to-sister confessional with Mary J. Blige: "As I look at what I've done, the type of life that I've lived, how many things I pray the father will forgive." The life she's lived includes relationships gone wrong, beefs with doubters, emotional revenge sprees, hard love lessons, and yes, a back-in-the-day Jersey drill-team girlhood. Over the bounce of "Every Ghetto, Every City," we learn that Lauryn was "just a little girl, skinny legs, a press and curl." You know her; she rode Mongooses, body-rocked to Biz Markie, and patched the same jeans she wrote on with a marker.

But nothing quite prepares you for the unmasked intimacy of "To Zion," the album's spiritual bedrock. "To Zion" is not so much a tribute to her newborn son (whose name is Zion) as it is a stunning and unforgettable praise song to the transformative powers of motherhood, a devout, intimate, nearly sacred blessing in which she defends her choice to give birth, risk her career, and become a single mom. When she pushes her husky mid-range to the limit intoning, "the joy of my world is in Zion," you don't just believe her, you want to know exactly what it feels like.

So you see, you just can't come into Miseducation expecting Nicole or Sparkle (or even Monica or Aaliyah). And you kind of have to drop the neo-soul baggage that's weighed down Erykah Badu and Maxwell. Because there's nothing neo- about what happens here, and there's not a stitch of new-diva-on-the-block about it either. Lauryn doesn't let any producer of the moment get in the way of hearing her as she hears herself. The production is raw, clean, and uncluttered. Nothing obscures our view of the "rapper-slash-actress, more powerful than Cleopatra" who's behind the wheel at every turn.

On both The Score and the Fugees' debut, Blunted on Reality (recorded when she was baby-cheeked, braided, and 19), the closest Lauryn got to throwing her head back and singing were the hooks she dropped between raps (the exception being the "Killing Me Softly" phenomenon). With Miseducation, it's as if she'd discovered the art of the song for the first time -- the narrative interplay of the verse, the release of the chorus, the strategic arrival of the bridge. And her voice has never sounded more fully realized. She can bring the melisma or stay smooth as mahogany. She can flow a delicate monologue or divide herself into multiple personalities, switching tones and registers so slyly that you start to suspect digital tampering. On "ex-Factor," after she's turned a Wu-Tang riff into a sireny groove of unrequited love (and after she begs, "Tell me who I have to be to get some reciprocity"), she breaks down into a breathless head-nodding stack of layered vocal pleas so desperate that you want to take the blame yourself and give and care and cry -- anything to stop her from hurting.

The hip-hop heads are probably rolling their eyes by now. But track-skipping to find recognizable Refugee beats-and-rhymes equations just misses the point. This is hip-hop so haunted by '70s soul that it has no choice but to be overcome by it (on the stinging "Superstar," Lauryn goes after copycat MCs and bad boy Benjamin looters by singing about them). And it does have all the stuff of a good soul album: intimate love confessions, emotional self-flagellation, and the near obligatory slinky man/woman duet (enter "Nothing Even Matters," a hushed and touching lover's gush with D'Angelo that melts in your ears as it effortlessly conjures Roberta and Donny, Isaac and Millie, Marvin and Tammi).

Even though Miseducation's cover-sample-and-hook quotient represents an all-time Fugee low (a Toots & the Maytals nibble here, a Bob Marley "Concrete Jungle" spinoff there), it still celebrates the Fugee aesthetic of the recycled familiar. The past is so present at times that Miseducation can seem like one big audio scrapbook, and as you thumb through it, you swear you've heard that melody, that lyric, or even that feeling before. Yet the loudest echoes don't come from who you might expect. They come from soul men, especially Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, whose tones and phrasing Lauryn has clearly studied well. She had to tell us, "I get Innervisions like Stevie," on The Score; on Miseducation, you hear it, just as you hear Talking Book and Donny Hathaway. Miseducation's doleful string-and-piano title track -- which comes complete with the simulated crackle of old vinyl for full old-school effect -- feeds off Stevie's ''You and I" and Donny's "For You" so much, it's a wonder Lauryn can still generate her own stirring self-revelation. "Deep in my heart the answer it was in me," she sings. "And I made up my mind to find my own destiny."

So maybe that's why she wasn't in class that day, and maybe that's why she puts her nappy-dread portrait on an old wooden school desk on the album's cover. After all, the subtext of Miseducation is black self-education. The album's title comes from two classics of the genre: pioneering black historian Carter Woodson's The Miseducation of the Negro, which fingered white universities as black soul contaminators; and the 1974 film The Education of Sonny Carson, which dramatized the street schooling of the Brooklyn writer.

Lauryn is no longer enrolled at Columbia, and on her Web page she rationalizes choosing "life lessons" over campus lessons, but let's hope that there's more to the pre-history of Miseducation's title than that. I'd rather see it as a patented soul-circa-black-power move, a remnant of black politics fusing with black pleasure on an album that quests for truthful love next to lines like "Why black people always be the ones to settle, march through these streets like Soweto."

And I'd rather assume Lauryn's not in class because she's teaching it. "Until you do right all you do will go wrong," she lectures on "Lost Ones;" "How you gon' win if you ain't right within," she rhetorically poses on "Doo-Wop"; "Let's love ourselves, then we can't fail," she preaches on "Everything Is Everything."

So just like that, a wise-beyond-her-23-years single mother has put "Where is the love?" back on the bargaining table. For her sake and for ours, I hope the rumor is true. I hope that a sequel to Zion is in the works. Falling in love with your life needs always to sound this triumphant.

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