#312 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Ever.
#20 on Q's Top 100 Albums Ever.
Musically, it's pretty well accepted that break-ups bring out the best in people. Look at Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, written in the wake of two relationships within the band crumbling. Or Spiritualized's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, in which Jason Pierce wrote about the band AND his relationship breaking up as it was happening. And there's The Smiths' Strangeways, Here We Come, written as the Morrissey/Marr songwriting partnership was breaking down, and released posthumously. And, of course, there's the White Album, inspired and created amongst the tension and arguments that threatened to - and eventually did - break up The Beatles.
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill walks similar ground. Not only had The Fugees broken up, having released a groundbreaking, stone-cold hip-hop classic in The Score, but - and few people actually knew at the time - Lauryn had been romantically involved with that group's Wyclef Jean. Both break-ups left her smarting, and she poured all her emotions into her first solo outing, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. It was such an undertaking that she sunk into depression soon afterwards and didn't release anything for 8 years.
The first track proper, Lost Ones, sets the tone. 'If you look closely, you'll see what you've become - you might win some, but you've just lost one.' 'Never unederestimate those who you scar, because karma comes back to you hard.' It's a fairly light-hearted funk track, musically, but the lyrics speak of pained defiance, of taunting a former lover with success. It's not hard to tell who it's aimed at.
Ex-Factor, meanwhile, shows you the otherside of the story. A genuinely emotional, touching song, it pulls apart her defences and pours her insecurities and fears into probably the best R&B song of the 90's (to be honest, I can only think of one other contender for that crown, and it's TLC's Waterfalls). It's got a storming guitar solo, too.
It's an opening salvo that forms one of the best statements of intent in music's history. That's not the whole story, though - there are several testaments to Lauryn's almost unique (within R&B and rap, at least) ability to turn her hand to pretty much any subject and make a great song. To Zion is a dedication to her son, and Doo-Wop (That Thing), the album's most famous track, takes a look at the difference between men and women, and the dominance of sex in society. The former could easily descend into cheesy power-ballad territory, while the latter could have ended up sounding like some Hollywood teen movie in song form. Both, however, have grit, imagination, and power. They stand as examples of how great R&B/hip-hop should be - tailor made equally for the mind and the dancefloor. The album mostly follows this formula, except for a few more subdued tracks, which can make it a little tiring, but only if you really go looking for it. But, let's face it, it's a good formula to follow, as it makes the album versatile - you can either listen to it when you want something slick to dance to, or you can listen for the emotion. It also means that, when Lauryn has a message outside of her own pain, she doesn't come off as pious and boring (a problem with some of the tracks on her Unplugged album).
Unfortunately, the rest of the album appears to be dominated by those opening 4 tracks (minus 'Intro'). 'Appears' is the key word here - the rest of the album is in fact very good, it's just that those 4 songs are the most obvious ones - obvious message, obvious quality. The rest of the album is a little more hard work, and the songs don't hit you immediately. This is probably why many mainstream R&B fans rejected it as an album, and it was instead embraced by underground hip-hop, old-school soul heads, and a fair few rock fans, too. There's a little lull, admittedly, in the tracks Final Hour and When It Hurts So Bad, neither of which I like all that much. It's worth the wait though, because business really picks up again with I Used To Love Him. And later, you're hit with the excellent double-whammy of Nothing Even Matters (featuring the underrated D'Angelo) and Everything Is Everything.
The guitars on this album deserve a mention - nice and laid-back acoustics appear on a lot of the tracks, and really stand out. According to the liners, Lauryn wrote all of these guitar parts (except To Zion, which has Carlos Santana on it, and the title track), along with everything else, which shows an understated, yet amazing talent. As far as I'm aware, there hasn't been an R&B singer to write for and play every instrument on their album since Prince.
This album drew comparisons to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye on its release, and still invites those kind of comparisons. Most R&B albums nowadays are terribly rushed together efforts, with 2 or 3 singles and 20 tracks of filler. This, on the other hand, is a rare thing nowadays - an R&B album that actually stands up as a whole, and as such, will be remembered for a long, long time. Unfortunately, it seems that, in the mainstream, only Alicia Keys took the point.
4 years after its release, it clocked into Q's reader-voted Top 100 Albums Ever at #20, placing it alongside Californication, The Marshall Mathers LP, and OK Computer as modern classics. While I wouldn't quite place it in that bracket, it's not far off, and it's certainly the best R&B album in living memory.
Recommended Download -
It simply has to be. There's no one song you could pick here to represent such a diverse album, so I've just picked the best. Excellent Santana-style solo, soul-baring lyrics....I think I said all this above! An awesome song - more than enough emotion and grit to be truly compelling.