A few weeks ago, I was listening to music with my roommates on a Friday night. Much to their chagrin, I ended up controlling Spotify and turned on a playlist with some of my favorites. My close friend stopped me as Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” started and said, “This is from a Drake song!” Drake, who in 2012 called himself “the first person to successfully rap and sing,” was borrowing from one of the unsung pioneers of the hip-hop genre. It saddens me that most of us know Hill from her samples on tracks written by those who benefit from the style of hip-hop she pioneered.
Lauryn Hill, whose work precedes that of artistically acclaimed rappers like Kendrick Lamar, is often overlooked as the originator of the hip-hop/soul genre, with beautiful instrumentation, impressive vocals and amazing flow. Her work seems to have been lost in the ’90s, when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released. So how did this example of sweeping range that revolutionized hip-hop get lost?
Hill rose to fame through her 1992 band The Fugees, which she formed with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. The band found immense commercial success and critical acclaim with the release of their 1996 sophomore album The Score. Hill, specifically, was praised for her interpretation of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which blended hip-hop, reggae and Caribbean influences while at the same time maintaining elements of the original soul. Additionally, Hill showed her versatility with her verse on “Ready or Not,” in which she showcased her hip-hop credentials by rapping along to Jean. Overall, the band showcased a new neo-soul sense that blended Jean’s Jamaican roots with Hill’s vocal abilities and hip-hop background, but Hill specifically began her journey as a versatile artist.
The Fugees disbanded in 1997 due to internal strife between Jean and Hill. This separation would bring Hill’s greatest work yet, in the form of an album and style that would revolutionize the music industry. In 1998, Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her debut and only solo album. The album opens with audio of a school bell, and we hear conversations about love between the “students.” Every track ends with audio from one of these conversations, which describe the experience of love as a Black woman. Presumably, Hill herself is one of the students, getting “re-educated” after her titular “miseducation” about love.
The album’s opener, “Lost Ones,” shows Hill’s rap prowess right out of the gate, establishing her abilities in the more traditional hip-hop genre. However, as we move through the album we hear Hill mix genres that she’d never fully dipped into during her time with The Fugees. Her range starts to shine through on “Ex-Factor,” where she pairs beautiful rhythm and blues vocals and instrumentation with rap.
“Ex-Factor” is the type of track that blends so many genres it feels like you’re listening to every song on a diverse album, but the blending is seamless. Hill incorporates the guitar skills of artist Carlos Santana on “To Zion,” an ode to her firstborn son, incorporating Latin jazz into her style. Arguably her most famous song, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” showcases her rapping and singing prowess in another genre-mixing song, filled with the warnings of things that she was never warned against in her “miseducation” on life and love.
We do see Hill divert into the “true” genres that she utilizes, specifically on her ballad track “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” her R&B anthem in “Nothing Even Matters” and her more pure rap style on tracks like “Every Ghetto, Every City.” Hearing the record takes the listener across the entire musical spectrum, yet it always comes together thanks to a touch that is distinct to Hill.
Women are often dismissed in the hip-hop world due to their gender, and it can feel like they have to choose their styles very explicitly. Women in hip hop who write about sexuality, like Cardi B, are dismissed as cheap shots despite men rapping about these same topics for decades. Hill’s range on Miseducation goes beyond musical range: She addresses a variety of topics related to her experience as a Black woman. Hill’s decision to mix styles and messages changed what it means to be a hip-hop artist — a woman in hip-hop — and these changes are still felt today.
Consider Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly from 2015: Mixing jazz instrumentals with a spoken-word style of rap and featuring artists from a variety of backgrounds felt revolutionary and fresh because of how well it was executed. But after listening to Miseducation, one quickly realizes that it all started with Hill’s style and fearlessness in mixing and mastering a spectrum of themes and disciplines.
Understanding the influence of Lauryn Hill on the music industry and the groundbreaking impact of her debut album is key in recognizing the development of music at large. So the next time you listen to modern hip-hop and enjoy the now-popular style of blending vocals and rap, don’t forget the artists who started it.
Lauryn Hill’s legacy deserves to be one of an artist who pioneered a style years before it caught on and beautifully mastered individual disciplines across an immense range.
Daily Arts Contributor Madeline Poupard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.