Rappers and hip-hop artists like to think of themselves as provocative and boldmusicians who “keep it real” by offering an unflinching portrait of urban life. But few recent rap records are as bold or as real as Lauryn Hill’s “To Zion,” a song about the 23-year-old singer’s decision to have a child out of wedlock.
Of course, that’s hardly a typical topic for a modern rap artist. But a large part of Hill’s appeal is how willingly she takes on personal subject matter. Throughout The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the young singer from South Orange, N.J., tackles the primary concerns of her life and transforms them into powerful music.
On “To Zion,” Hill recalls how her pregnancy wasn’t necessarily celebrated by many of her friends and associates. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the means to take care of a child; at the time, the member of best-selling hip-hop trio The Fugees was well on her way to becoming one of the most successful young performers of the 1990s.
Instead, it was a matter of timing and priorities. Hill had embarked on a world tour supporting The Score, the Fugees’ second album, which was quickly becoming the most commercially successful hip-hop album of all time. Because the Fugees had consented to a long and hard touring schedule, there were those around Hill who didn’t think it was a good time for her to take on the responsibilities of pregnancy and motherhood.
In “To Zion,” she offers her response. To a beautiful Spanish guitar melody played by Carlos Santana, Hill sings in a dusky, sweet-toned voice, “Everybody told me to be smart. ‘Look at your career,’ they said. ‘Lauryn, baby, use your head.’ Instead, I chose to use my heart.” She named her baby boy “Zion”; now, with her solo debut near the top of the sales charts, she’s expecting her second child before the end of the year.
Like the rest of Miseducation, “To Zion” isn’t political; it’s personal. Hill isn’t making a statement about abortion rights, nor is she saying what anybody else should do under similar circumstances. She’s simply, and beautifully, explaining how she exercised her own right to choose.
The song also cuts to the core of Hill’s agenda. Disregarding typical hip-hop subject matter, Hill instead looks inside herself and writes with guts and artistry about what matters to her most. Over 16 songs (including two hidden tracks), she candidly expounds on stardom, motherhood, love, inner-city communities, the state of hip-hop, and sexism in the music industry.
Throughout, she peels off her opinions in rhymes that have little to do with the calculated stances of most current pop artists. It’s rare to find a modern-day superstar willing to say something substantive with his or her music. But that’s exactly what Hill does throughout her debut.
Because of her quiet dignity, Hill has started earning comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. But unlike those two powerful singers, Hill writes, arranges, and produces all of her own music. For this reason, she may have more in common with progressive black artists like Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder, who throughout their careers have commented on their times with bold, powerful, well-crafted, and distinctly unique songs.
Hill’s album has one clear theme: As she puts it in the title song, “I made up my mind to find my own destiny.” Her sense of purpose even comes through in the album title, a personal take on a popular African American studies book, The Miseducation of the Negro. As Hill has said in interviews, the title suggests that she’s rewriting the future others may have planned for her. She’s not following the usual path laid out for black women by American society or by the music industry. Instead, she will learn as she goes and think for herself.
She spends some time railing against what’s wrong with the current state of rap, leveling criticism at females who’re “showing off your ass because you think it’s a trend” and slamming the macho, gun-happy image favored by male rap stars. “Hip-hop started off in the heart,” she sings, “now everybody just trying to chart.”
But on the whole, the album looks to larger issues. Most of all, Hill strives through her songs to be on an equal footing with others, to favor humanity and sensitivity over greed and pride. As she sings in “Forgive Them Father,” “Why for you to increase, I must decrease? If I treat you kindly does it mean that I’m weak?”
That conflict between the pursuit of power and the desire to act humanely will likely continue to be a concern for Hill. Miseducation looks to be one of the grand successes of 1998, both artistically and commercially. Upon its release, the record broke sales records for a debut solo album by a female artist. And now, two months later, it has sold 2 million copies. That makes it a rare modern-pop album that captures both the attention of critics and the general public.
The album’s success naturally calls into question whether the Fugees will ever make another group album, especially since Hill’s two cohorts have also released solo records. Wyclef Jean enjoyed a well-regarded commercial hit with last year’s The Carnival, while Pras has followed with the just-released Ghetto Supastar.
While Hill says “once a Fugee, always a Fugee,” there are indications of strife in the Refugee Camp. Last year, Wyclef Jean told interviewers he would be producing Hill’s solo debut. Her record company had also planned on that as well. But Hill says she always intended to do it herself.
So, fans have wondered, is she speaking to Jean in the opening lines of “Lost Ones,” the first song on Miseducation? “It’s funny how money change a situation,” she says with a Jamaican lilt to her voice. “Miscommunication leads to complication/My emancipation don’t fit your equation/I was on the humble, you on every station.”
Hill won’t say, only allowing that the Fugees are still a group and will record together. But, whatever she does, she will do it from a position of strength, no matter how much the music business might try to keep her down. As she told Details magazine, “This is a very sexist industry. They’ll never throw the genius title to a sister. They’ll just call her ‘diva’ and think it’s a compliment.”
As Hill has shown, however, she’s going to do things her way from now on. As she does, let’s hope she continues to be guided by her heart.
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