The Score turned New Jersey's The Fugees into one of the biggest groups on the planet. Released in 1996, the trio's second album featured radio-friendly hit singles - Ready Or Not, Fu-Gee-La, an inescapably massive cover of Lori Lieberman’s Killing Me Softly - and sold 22 million copies worldwide.
Without wishing to underplay the contributions of MC’s Wyclef Jean and Praz, the primary reason for the success of The Score was surely obvious to anyone who listened to it: the incredible voice and striking presence of 21-year-old prodigy Lauryn Hill. Effortlessly switching between gorgeous, soulful, gospel vocals and a gritty, hip-hop flow, she is unquestionably the star of the show, the undeniable MVP.
Given this fact, it was surely no surprise to anyone in the music industry that Hill was destined to fly the roost, and embark upon a solo career. But this was the major label world of the late 1990s, an industry deeply rooted in misogyny and dismissive attitudes towards female artists. And so, endless roadblocks were placed in front of Hill, she was discredited by collaborators and former partners, and ultimately her solo career yielded just one album. It's a testament, then, to her talent and drive that the sole album Lauryn Hill gave us is such a perfect, magnificent, legendary record. The world tried to take everything from her, but no one can take away the grandeur of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Although The Score was a huge success, behind the scenes, things were breaking down for The Fugees. Hill and Wyclef Jean had been in a relationship together for some time, but as they toured The Score they were in a bad place. “We had fights on planes,” Wyclef told the New York Daily News in 2012, “we had huge fights, and a few times when it went down, she started swinging at me right there in the seats.”
While their relationship on the rocks, Wyclef decided to marry another woman, without breaking off his relationship with Hill. A bold decision, to put it mildly. Matters were further complicated when, in 1996, Hill announced that she was pregnant with her new partner Rohan Marley’s child, and Wyclef made claims that he was the father.
Bomb dropped on the situation. Wyclef then went off and made his own solo album, 1997’s Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee All-Stars, which featured writing credits from Hill, and which the band's label Columbia fully backed.
Though Hill too was writing solo material, she was constantly told by Columbia that she should save her songs for the next Fugees album: even more crassly, it was suggested that her pregnancy was a problem. The band's manager Jayson Jackson recalls that Hill was understandably furious.
“The Fugees were on the road in the summer of '96 and Lauryn called me like, ‘I can't believe these muthafuckers. I've been talking about making my solo record for the longest and they're doing everybody's solo record but mine! I'm leaving the group, I've had it'.”
Emotionally drained and feeling betrayed and unappreciated, Hill decided to take some time away from touring and writing. But the pregnancy stirred something in her, and sitting at home she was inspired to create over 30 songs.
"When some women are pregnant, their hair and their nails grow, but for me it was my mind and ability to create,” she says in Leah Furman’s 1999 book Heart of Soul: The Lauryn Hill Story. “I had the desire to write in a capacity that I hadn't done in a while. I don't know if it's a hormonal or emotional thing... I was very in touch with my feelings at the time. Every time I got hurt, every time I was disappointed, every time I learned, I just wrote a song.”
Hill authored a set of songs that drew on classic soul. She was so inspired by Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life that she bought all of the instruments listed in the linear notes, and decided she was going to have all of them on her album, to keep the “human element”. But, even in this fertile period of creativity, more and more people were attempting to shut her down.
Sony and Columbia were not impressed with her early demos, allegedly calling them “Coffee table music”: once again Hill was encouraged to just get back together with The Fugees. This prospect was made even more unlikely when, despite Hill contributing to his album, Wyclef refused to return the favour and assist Hill with her record; a host of high profile producers and musicians also turned down the chance to contribute. There were also whispers that Hill was encouraged to get an abortion by important people within the label. Support for the singer was almost non-existent. “No one believed”, recalled Gordon “Commissioner Gordon” Williams, an engineer on the album.
Hill, though, was inspired by a higher power. When she gave birth to her first son Zion on August 3 1997, she was quick to credit the event as the main inspiration for the record.
“I would say he personally delivered me from my emotional and spiritual drought,” she said. “He just replenished my newness. When he was born, I felt like I was born again.”
Invigorated, she entered Chung King Studio in New York in September 1997, and finished the record off in June 1998 at Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, a studio originally built for Bob Marley. The Tuff Gong sessions featured the entire Marley family coming into the studio and singing along with Hill as she delivered her vocals, leading to a vibrant, happy and energetic recording session.
Scheduled for release on August 25, 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was an immediate smash, entering the US Billboard 200 chart at number 1, selling 422,624 copies in its first week, breaking the first week sales by a female artist in the process. It would go on to be certified Diamond by the RIAA, for sales of over 10 million in the US alone. Worldwide, it remains the best-selling album by a female rapper ever. Not bad for “Coffee table music”.
At the 1999 Grammys, Hill’s triumph was copper-fastened, as she picked up a record five awards: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album, Best New Artist and, most impressively of all, the coveted Best Album award, the first ever hip-hop album to do so.
A quarter of a century on from its release, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is considered one of the greatest debut albums ever made, one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made, hell, just one of the very best records in the history of popular music. It’s a spectacular listen, full of heart, soul, defiance, beauty and euphoric, celebratory sounds. Doo Wop (That Thing) is still every inch the classic soul anthem, but Hill’s ode to her musical upbringing on Every Ghetto, Every City is just as glorious, the savagely empowering Lost Ones is as hard as any hip-hop tune from the time you care to mention, and her ode to her newborn son, To Zion, is a perfectly poignant tear-jerker.
It seems criminal that we never got a true follow-up. Despite the success of the record, Hill’s professional life continued to stall. She struggled with fame, unable to leave the house without worrying about her physical appearance; she fired her management company; a lawsuit from a New York collective New-Ark, who helped collaborate on The Miseducation..., claiming they were not fully credited for their work, was settled out of court in 2001. Hill returned in 2002 for an MTV Unplugged set, composed entirely of new material, with her playing guitar, an instrument she had only been learning to play for a matter of months, but the performance was peppered with long, rambling, incoherent speeches between songs and, with Hill having apparently blown her voice out at rehearsal, it was far from the glorious comeback we all desired. Clearly struggling, an emotional Hill retreated from the spotlight once again, where she has largely remained.
“The wild thing is no one from my label has ever called me and asked, ‘How can we help you make another album?’ ever... EVER,” she told Rolling Stone. “With The Miseducation..., there was no precedent. I was, for the most part, free to explore, experiment and express. After The Miseducation..., there were scores of tentacled obstructionists, politics, repressing agendas, unrealistic expectations and saboteurs everywhere. People had included me in their own narratives of their successes as it pertained to my album, and if this contradicted my experience, I was considered an enemy.”
It seems utterly absurd that a creative industry would treat an artist like Lauryn Hill with such contempt, in the process robbing all of us from hearing the growth of one of the most uniquely talented artists of her generation. Even so, her influence, and the the influence of this record, cannot be understated.
Today, female artists are far more trusted, respected and acclaimed than they were I 1998. Without Lauryn Hill, without her unwillingness to bend or compromise her artistic vision, without her proving everyone wrong, would the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish and countless others be as celebrated as they are today? It is impossible to say, but one thing that can be said for certain: when you make a record of this quality, there’s nothing anyone can do to kill its momentum, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an album for the ages. With all the drama and gossip a thing of the past, all that remains is the music, and what beautiful music Lauryn Hill gave us.