In a year full of reckonings — racial, political and ecological, among others — we are all asking ourselves questions that haven’t been posed before. Stuck in our houses and familial bubbles, away from the normalcy of everyday life, the simultaneous slowness and rapid change of quarantine days forces us to reassess the lessons we’ve learned and the ones we still have to. In a lot of ways, people are finally realizing the way we’ve been miseducated by our society, how the lies of prejudiced institutions have shaped our understanding of the world around us. And though Lauryn Hill’s first album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released over 20 years ago, it echoes this contemporary period of internal grappling. 

Created after the disbanding of her former group the Fugees in 1997, the record is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, presenting Hill’s life and experiences in a perfectly packaged narrative structure. It won five Grammy Awards and much more critical acclaim in the years afterward, heralded as a landmark record in the development of modern hip hop. 

From lost love to the elation of having her first child, the 22-year-old Hill weaves her life story pre-1998 around brilliant R&B production and her inimitable voice. Each song offers the listener a different perspective on her rise to fame and all that comes with it, but the way that she does this is genius in its own right, bringing the music to a higher level of emotional depth. 

This approach begins right at the first track, “Intro,” with a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”-style roll call in a classroom full of student hubbub. The teacher’s deep voice calls for every student, emphasized by a slow-moving soundtrack of chimes and jazz guitar. When he moves to Lauryn Hill’s name, though, she isn’t there; this absence sets up the album as her “school of life,” so to speak, and each song presents a new lesson in her miseducation. Hill has learned from experience what love can do to a person, and that education is even more poignant than what you could learn at a rickety school desk. Despite this, the structure of a classroom presents her words as truth and fact, words that we could all stand to learn from ourselves. 

The second auditory schoolroom scene happens at the end of second track “Lost Ones,” transitioning from the song’s sassy rebuke of a toxically arrogant partner into a lesson on love. “L-O-V-E, what does that spell,” the teacher asks, and the classroom’s resident students respond with the songs and movies centered around the feeling. “Titanic!” one yells, and the laughter of other students mixes with the answers as the end fades out. These easter eggs of context throughout the album aren’t purely for novelty, but rather a framework that presents Hill’s overarching message of self-empowerment and trust. Love is different for everybody, even a high-schooler in the comfort of their peers’ presence. 

“How many of y’all have ever been in love,” the teacher, future mayor of Newark Ras Baraka, asks to his neighborhood’s kids. They respond in kind, the girls offering a deep insight into love as a young person with the boys hesitantly catching on. This interlude after Hill’s striking meditation on motherhood with Carlos Santana, “To Zion,” solidifies the track’s emphasis on individual thought and choice in the face of pressure. Hill wrote most of the record’s songs while pregnant with her first child despite the encouragement of her label and family to terminate the pregnancy, infusing many of them with a steadfast embrace of herself and her own narrative. 

In 2018, The New York Times published an episode of their podcast “The Daily” featuring the kids from these clips 20 years later, telling the story of their encounter with Hill after school one day. According to those included in the interview, Hill drove around her neighborhood asking children on the sidewalk and friends of friends to come to a recorded gathering helmed by her friend Baraka. What resulted was a loose conversation with the young participants on what love meant to them, boiling down the nature of that elusive emotion into basic blocks of explanation. At 22, Hill was already comparing her younger self to the trials and tribulations of adulthood, balancing her own choices in life with those that were made for her. 

If anything, Miseducation’s classroom structure presents those well-known songs with a flavor of nostalgia. Love doesn’t just happen to you, according to Hill — you have to choose love in your life, chase it until you find it again. The record’s whopping 16 tracks would have been a manifesto on their own, and certainly would have won all those Grammys by themselves. But the voices of the children involved give an even deeper context to Hill’s musical revelations. They teach us that love and life is an ongoing process of learning, trying to decode the questions that only we can answer for ourselves. The record’s title track encapsulates this journey perfectly: “Deep in my heart, the answer it was in me,” she sings, “And I made up my mind to define my own destiny.”

Daily Arts Writer Clara Scott can be reached at clascott@umich.edu.

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