1998 in many ways was a vital turning point for American pop culture. An internet company by the name of Google had been created, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and NSYNC were on the rise, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan were cross-culturally kicking ass and taking names in Rush Hour, and then-President Clinton was claiming not to have had sexual relations with 25-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky.
To us, these were wild times.
But in the world of hip-hop and R&B, a shift was beginning to take place. Just a year before, we had tragically lost the only Christopher we acknowledge and as a culture, it was becoming a stark reality that gun violence was becoming synonymous with rap culture. But even as the dust began to settle, the way was being paved for soon-to-be heavy hitters like JAY-Z, Outkast, Master P, and DMX to create their own lanes in the genre and put an end to east coast – west coast beef.
Still, there was a void within the culture that yearned for gentle tenderness yet authentic honesty of black women lyricists and vocalists — both on and off wax. At the turn of the century inched closer and closer, it became more evident that black women were ready to elevate their voices independently and tell their own stories.
In 1998 alone, Brandy released Never Say Never (an album that would go on to serve as the soundtrack of my adolescence) and showed us that she was just more than Moesha; the popular sitcom Living Single had just ended its five-year run on FOX; a sweet quartet from Houston, Texas by the name of Destinys Child swooned us with their first hit No, No, No; and the Queen of Soul reminded not to be fooled by these slick talking men in A Rose Is Still A Rose – an anthem that was penned and produced by a 22-year-old prodigy from South Orange, New Jersey.
Enter Ms. Lauryn Hill.
Now, this wasn’t the first musical introduction we had to Hill – for just five years before in 1993, she had starred in Sister Act 2 as Rita Watson, a rebellious teenage student at a struggling Catholic school in San Francisco.
Rita came off as a tough kid, but deep down all she wanted to do was sing and make music with her classmates – but she isnt supported by her mother in the process. In her breakout performance at the end of the film, (which still makes me tear up to this day) we see a young woman boldly and fearlessly come into her own talent.
The Fugees were the hottest hip-hop act out, but fast forward to August 25, 1998, and Ms. Hill goes on to drop her one and only solo album that would ultimately become a magnum opus for coming-of-age black women – complete with the highs, lows and growing pains of experiencing love, fame, faith and eventually, giving birth to a child.
For many black women, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a foundational guideline for womanhood. Its the album you can play when you’ve fallen out of love yet you continue to play tug of war with your heart and mind; the one you listen to when you’ve moved on, healed and are ready to explore what it means to love again; and the one you can groove to when you need a swift reminder of the strength you already hold deep within. It was the album that gave a pure definition to the meaning of black girl magic before we even know what it was.
In 2018, I believe this album is still highly revered because of Ms. Hill sonically us a glimpse into her growth that was happening in real time. If you bought or read Joan Morgan’s excellent book, She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, this was touched upon.
With wisdom beyond her years, a cadence in her rhymes that was better than a lot of male MCs in the game, and soulful melodies that could express pain and joy simultaneously, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill continues to teach us that vulnerability is necessary, love comes in so many forms and self-awareness is essential to understanding how you move in the world around you.
As I prepare to turn 30 in a few months, here are the four songs from this timeless body of work that I am revisiting that I believe continue to define the evolution of a black woman’s experience.
- Doo-Wop (That Thing) – I was nine years old when I learned from a friend of mine that the That Thing Ms. Lauryn Hill was referring to was sex. Needless to say, life came at me fast that day and I ultimately had a really important conversation with my mom about the birds and the bees. But because of this song, I quickly learned that women – black women in particular – were held to a certain standard that made us think we were only good for our bodies. The vocalist and lyricist come forth in this song to debunk this myth, and to remind us that we are ultimately in charge of owning and protecting our self-worth.
You know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem
Baby girl, respect is just a minimum
N***** fucked up and you still defending ’em
- Ex-Factor – Whether I’m in love with someone or not, this song still sends me to a place where I’m like, I give and love and give and love some more, and haven’t gotten anything in return – I’m good love, enjoy. Today’s youth are now familiar with the song because of Drake and Cardi B, but those of us who are old enough to remember the video where Lauryn sang her heart out in that white jumpsuit, it will forever be a moment of realizing the need to surrender to the past even though the love may linger on.
Tell me, who I have to be
To get some reciprocity
No one loves you more than me
And no one ever will
- Nothing Even Matters – On the other hand, once you let go of that old love, you can absolutely make room for something new. This beautiful duet with DAngelo is reminiscent of something Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell would’ve done in the late 1990s. This song reminds me that it is absolutely possible to recover from heartbreak and fall in love again.
These buildings could drift out to sea
Some natural catastrophe
Still, there’s no place I’d rather be
‘Cause nothin’ even matters to me
- Final Hour – It wasn’t until recently when I understood what Ms. Hill was speaking to on this song – how quickly fame and fortune can come, it can disappear in just an instant. Given how her life unfolded after this album, I think that she might have been foreshadowing her response to her celebrity.
Get diplomatic immunity in every ghetto community
Had opportunity went from Hoodshock to Hood-chic
But it ain’t what you cop, it’s about what you keep
And even if there are leaks, you can’t capsize this ship
- BONUS: Zion – I couldn’t round this list out without mentioning this memorable ode to Ms. Hills’ first son, Zion. She sings with such joy about bringing a life into the world – particularly at a time when people told her she should put her career before building a family. Throughout her lyrics, Ms. Hill expresses immense gratitude for the responsibility she has been given to bring a child – a black male at that – into the world. Particularly at a time when black women are unfortunately faced with maternal mortality, this song still brings hope and encouragement to women that it is such a blessing to give life and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of his grace
What’s clear now more than ever is that Ms. Lauryn Hill used her album to share her various definitions and stages of love: self-love, romantic love, the love for your gifts and talents, and of course, love for her child.
As our culture continues to embrace this age of trap rap and auto-tune R&B, I’m grateful to know that this album will forever stand the test of time, and that will continue to grow the black women for generations to come.