I didn’t know what “that thing” was when Lauryn Hill dropped her first single off of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in the summer of ’98. I didn’t know what rims or Timbs or Benjamins were, either. I was six. But this didn’t stop me from singing along to it just like every other girl who listened to the radio back then.
As I grew older and learned what “that thing” actually was, I started to grow into Hill. I belted out “Ex-Factor” in the midst of breakups and instinctively eyed Drake’s sampling of this sacred song with skepticism. And I began to revere Hill in the same way I revered other ’90s greats I was too young to appreciate in their heydays, like Aaliyah, Lisa Left-Eye, and Tupac: with a heavy dose of #FOMO, and a very strong pair of rose-colored glasses.
This, of course, is problematic. Unlike the others, no life-altering tragedy has cut Hill’s career short, preventing her from making another album. She has six children. She has watched as hip-hop and R&B have evolved well into the twenty-first century. So why does Hill still seem frozen in the 1990s?
Hip-hop journalist Joan Morgan provides insight to this question in She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a powerful probe into the artist, album, and what has become of both in the last two decades. While many have speculated about Hill over the years, it seems no one has wanted to speculate enough to write an entire book about her. This is a somewhat surprising notion, especially considering the fact that, as Morgan points out, Miseducation has been praised “for its themes of self-love, empowerment, and broken-heart-bounce-backs” and “has earned itself the rank of classic in contemporary American popular culture.” Case in point: NPR ranked Miseducation high on its list of “150 Greatest Albums Made by Women,” even higher than works by the prolific Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Carole King.
So, Morgan has a lot of gaps to fill—and a lot of traps to potentially fall into. A retrospective of an artist like Hill risks too much sentimentality or too much criticism, but the Jamaican-born South Bronx-bred writer employs a shrewd, insightful tone that goes down as easily as spoken word. Morgan doesn’t just remember Hill’s career, she was living it, having once been a writer at VIBE and columnist at SPIN. In 1999, she originated the term “hip-hop feminist” in her memoir, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as A Hip-Hop Feminist.
For this book, Morgan brings various acclaimed black women to speak on Hill, too, including culture critic Michaela Angela Davis; #MeToo founder Tarana Burke; Black Girls Rock! founder D.J. Beverly Bond; and, one of The Source’s first female editors, Kierna Mayo. This ensemble cast, occasionally invoked through interviews, personal reflections, and even a playlist, renders this retrospective as more of an animated conversation than a paint-by-numbers chronicle.
Morgan moves swiftly through Hill’s career, taking us through her rise as a Fugee to her peak as a solo artist and, inevitably, her move from media darling to difficult (sometimes impossible) artist. Our time with the Fugees is relatively brief—this book is only one hundred and fifty-one pages, after all—and Morgan doesn’t speak as much as she could about the group’s end or Hill’s relationship with Wyclef Jean. (“There’s no question that the deterioration of Hill and Wyclef’s romantic and professional relationships were a contributing factor. Those details won’t be parsed here,” Morgan concedes, and you can practically hear her rolling her eyes at the thought of rehashing their drama.) But what she does entertain is the effect the Fugees had upon Hill, a middle-class girl raised in New Jersey by American-born parents:
[W]hile her bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michél, bear the hyphenated negotiations of identity common to first- and second-generation immigrants, Lauryn Hill is strictly African American. There was no ackee and saltfish and boiled dumpling cooking in the Sunday morning kitchen of her childhood. No parents rousing her out of sleep with sharply punctuated patois. Instead, she deliberately wrote herself into the discourse of diaspora, drew on the global nature of black music, and fashioned herself a citizen of the world. She took from that legacy what she wanted and asked no one’s permission, in part because she treated hip-hop itself for what it is—a Caribbean-American art form. Understanding its roots, L-Boogie explored its routes. As a result, her blackness, and its reach, was ubiquitous.
Morgan also explores the social and political climate in which Hill came up, reminding readers of the not-so-long-ago troubles of the ’90s: Clinton’s harmful Three Strikes Bill; the character assassination of Anita Hill; the wrongful murder of Amadou Diallo. “If you were a hip-hop-loving black girl in the ‘90s,” Morgan observes, “you were deeply in need of some healing.”
Miseducation was the salve. She argues that Hill was “the visual precursor for #BlackGirlMagic,” in a time when natural hair and dark brown skin hardly, if ever, appeared on magazine covers. Hill was a breath of fresh air eager to be gulped not just by hip-hop listeners but by the mainstream, and that Hill could cover a Frankie Valli song when hip-hop was at the “the height of ghetto fabulousness, in a time when hip-hop was invested in the cache of being able to show the world that blackness could move seamlessly in and out of multiple worlds,”—think Puff Daddy—is no coincidence.
But it’s important to note that Morgan does not examine Hill without checks and balances. She highlights the artist’s often surprising decisions, like having a child with Rohan Marley at the age of twenty-two, at the height of her career; putting on a poorly received folk performance on MTV’s Unplugged in 2001; and being egregiously late to concerts and interviews (including her interview with Morgan herself for Essence in 2009). Her acknowledgement of the controversies that have followed Hill is refreshing, and critic dream hampton’s bold claim that Miseducation was “under-produced” feels downright counterrevolutionary.
So, too, does hampton’s suggestion that unconditional reverence for Hill and Miseducation might have had a hand in stunting the artist’s career:
We celebrated something that we considered the absence of something. She was the absence of the hoochie, the absence of the chickenhead, the absence of the rap ho. And we did that at the expense of looking at what was actually there, which was a solid egg that could have grown. What we did instead was crown her fucking Nina Simone. We did the same thing with D’Angelo. We told him he was Marvin Gaye and we told Lauryn that she was Nina Simone and they each had one fucking album.
It’s an argument hard to resist. There’s no doubt that Hill was ahead of her time. But she was also young: Hill met Pras Michél in high school, and the Fugees recorded their sophomore six-time platinum album, The Score, when she was twenty. When “Doo Wop (That Thing)” dropped, Hill was twenty-three. Twenty-three.
“Think about it for a minute,” Morgan writes. “Lauryn Hill was a twenty-three-year-old girl who bared her soul and made a stellar, grown-ass woman album. We were the ones who turned it into our bible. Then with gratitude and with ignorance, we did what we do with celebrities: We turn mortals into gods—queens, if they’re only women—and then summarily pick them apart at the first hint of disappointment.”
To some, this may sound self-aggrandizing; to others, maybe an easy out for Hill. But it’s an argument worth considering in the wake of Miseducation’s twentieth anniversary, in a time when the relationship between fan and celebrity is more symbiotic than it has ever been. Regarding Hill, Morgan believes that “[a]s black women, we really should have known better, but instead we did to Lauryn what the world does to us. Asks us to save it and when we do? It asks us to save it again.” Have we learned our lesson? What would the world do if Beyoncé suddenly decided to stop making music?
There are still unturned stones by the time one reaches the end of She Begat This. Readers may find themselves wishing Morgan had provided a deeper look into Hill’s life, maybe by further speaking on her relationships, or addressing the lawsuit filed by artists who claimed Hill did not properly credit them for their work on Miseducation, or the prison sentence she served for tax evasion in 2013. But broaching such territory risks detracting from the book’s elegance. It would be more apt to hear Hill speak on these matters herself, the same way she recently responded to Robert Glasper’s claim that she hadn’t “done enough” to behave the way she does. Because let me remind you, Lauryn Hill is still here. She Begat This does not seek to speak for her.
Nor does it beg you to love her. It asks that you acknowledge her. It asks for readers young and old to respect who she was, who she is, and who she could be. We can’t keep her in the ’90s. Because as Morgan writes,
Holding on to L-Boogie while refusing to acknowledge the reality of Ms. Hill is a fatalistic surrender to the mistaken belief that black girl magic is an exhaustible entity, that the best isn’t still yet to come.
So, while I wish I’d been of age to fully appreciate Hill’s heyday, I’m cool with celebrating what she has begat us: a new generation of neo-soul-singing, old-school hip-hop-loving, natural-hair-wearing black women who believe in their own #BlackGirlMagic. And a catchy hook to a Drake song, too.