Lauryn Hill’s breakthrough solo hip-hop album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, turns a whopping sixteen years old next week. Besides its 1998 Grammy Album of the Year-status, for a lot of 90s kids like myself, this album was a huge part of child-musichood. While most of us were too young to appreciate Fugees-era Lauryn, we were just old enough to revel in her later-90s emergence into the otherwise male/’gangsta’-dominated rap scene–a time when Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes reigned supreme.
She was a gift, and a rare one for sure.
From her sweet and aching ballad, “The Ex-Factor” (those pipes, man) to her sassily rapped and generationally-shaming anthem “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, Lauryn’s soulful music was the music fan’s bread and butter during this transformative, gender-equalizing period in hip-hop. Circa-1998 Lauryn Hill embodied the sort of persona and energy that young girls and women who listened to hip-hop could admire…best described as profound and unprocessed. “REAL”.
To remind you of her way with words, here’s an excerpt of “Everything is Everything”, an earnestly rhymed hit off the album that showcased Lauryn’s emcee artistry:
“You can’t match this rapper slash actress
More powerful than two Cleopatras
Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti
MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti…
…Now hear this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture
Develop a negative into a positive picture”
Her raps were just as beautiful as her smoky and soaring singing voice, and Hill had the outlook to match it. Physically, she exuded a smart sexiness, without treading on trashy. Her lyrics weren’t laced with profanity, but dripping with truth…for young people, females, males, society. Regrettably, we were graced with just one solo album from her…a result of a music career curtailed by money issues and rocky public relations.
Strangely enough, though, her spot was nowhere near filled. (Although Missy Elliott gets an honorable mention).
When women DID finally creep back onto the rap scene, (2005 and beyond), their content was starkly different. And there were/are only a handful of them (namely Lil Kim, Eve, etc). Specifically, they were immediately molded to fit with the radio-worthy, boastful and misogynistic material of their male counterparts. (For example, Nicki Minaj’s 2010 explosion only after her sexually-charged solo verse in Trey Songz’ “Bottom’s Up”).
The rise and fall of female artists–especially in hip-hop–has uncovered a number of facts. It’s not about ability. The depressing thing is, even when equipped with the right talent and competency, a female artist can’t sell in the rap world on her own; she either A) settles for industry control over her image and lyrics, which often sexualize and cheapen–leading to the denigration and/or total destruction of her original message or intent or B) does it herself, risking record label backlash, unpopularity, and fading into rejected Bag-Ladydom like our girl Lauryn Hill…(whose issues, I should point out, mostly were money and lawsuit-related). Still, the point is that Lauryn Hill demonstrated such potential for spearheading a movement in hip-hop. It blew to pieces, however, because she was stubborn in her independent marketing of herself (rightfully so) and couldn’t handle her financial business.
All tax evasion issues aside, Lauryn Hill remains an icon and a model of female hip-hop artistry: a booster of confidence and an promoter of class. I don’t care what anyone says, she’s still the best girl in the game. And ever since The Miseducation‘s release in 1998, the bar has officially been set [very high] for any successors in her craft. (And no, Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj do not qualify for comparison).
It’s apparent that hip-hop could use a resurgence of female power. With the casual and tolerated objectification of women and misogynistic lyricism still running wild, the genre is in dire need of a shift of influence–or at least a greater contribution from a minority voice. Twerking and bottle-popping might comprise the tawdry substance of mainstream male rap, but female artists don’t have to conform to this. They can be the ones to redirect the focus, bring back meaningful ideals, and clean up rap’s act.
In other words…Lauryn Hill, get your money straight; we need you back.