Even her fashion choices, before anything was said or sung, spoke volumes about her convictions. Like Samson’s hair, Hill’s manner and style were part of her superpowers. They were hip in an unruly way; they signaled she was not to be messed with. She sported dreadlocks, sometimes twisted and coiled in cornrows, always slick. Her clothes—leather jackets, retro tops and jeans, African and Jamaican colors and textures—were both chic and rebellious; they complemented her natural beauty without reducing her to a sex object. She had touches of Jamaican reggae in her, splashes of 1970s funk and soul, traces of Public Enemy’s militancy, and the flair and emotion of gospel. These choices of self-presentation identified her with the struggle of Black folk around the globe, connected her with refugees and agitators, and defined her as a countercultural icon.
As for the soundscape, live instruments and layered harmonies evoked the music of the 1970s, dancehall reggae and patois-inflected raps evoked the Caribbean, and, of course, the spiritual content evoked communal and religious notes from an older past, going back to the age of the spirituals and gospel. “Gospel music is music inspired by the gospels,” Hill remarked about the inspiration for Miseducation. “In a huge respect, a lot of this music turned out to be just that. During this album, I turned to the Bible and wrote songs that I drew comfort from.”
More than just comforting, though, Miseducation was also defiant and edgy. Hill stood in the lineage of Black music—the lineage of Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Al Green—formed by soul-shaking, body-quaking, house-wrecking religion. On one track you might hear warm gospel vocals; on the next, she was blowing rival rappers away like chaff. The result was all things to all people: now tender and sensitive, now bluesy and wistful, now sanctifying and prayerful, and sometimes, in the spirit of hip-hop, rugged and confrontational.
Take “Lost Ones,” one of the most hammering displays of lyricism on the album, its percussive flow of words complementing its hardcore hip-hop beats and record scratches. (The hook samples Sister Nancy’s dancehall hit “Bam Bam” from 1982.) It begins with a declaration of personal emancipation and then turns into a dis: “My emancipation don’t fit your equation / I was on the humble / You on every station / Some wanna play young Lauryn like she’s dumb / But remember not a game new under the sun.” In the late 1990s, rap’s standard formula—a combination of flaunting one’s wealth, drug hype, and supersized masculinity—had a hard time knowing what to do with a female rapper like Lauryn Hill. The hip-hop of that period often featured displays of subversive fun, anything to keep one’s mind off the spikes in homicide, bulging prisons, the poverty of the inner city. Older generations, facing such problems, did what they could to confront and challenge the system; hip-hop of the late 1990s seemed to be doing everything it could to claw its way to the top of that system and claim it as one’s own. Lauryn Hill, needless to say, found that dream empty:
Now, now how come your talk turn cold
Gained the whole world for the price of your soul….
Now you’re all floss
What a sight to behold
Wisdom is better than silver and gold
I was hopeless now I’m on hope road
Every man wants to act like he’s exempt
When he needs to get down on his knees and repent
Can’t slick talk on the day of judgment.
“Final Hour,” another one of Hill’s fast-moving, declamatory raps, continues in the same vein, warning about the high price of fame and fortune and the danger of neglecting the values of the soul. Like the prophets Moses and Aaron, whom she invokes, Hill decries idolatrous attachments to worldly treasures—“watch out what you cling to”—and envisions a revolutionary upheaval, the kind that would fix attention on the poor instead of the rich, on outcasts and slaves instead of the princes of the world. Echoing the central tenet of liberation theology, she calls for a soul-altering change, a conversion that would prioritize the needs of the poor above all else: “I’m about to change the focus from the richest to the brokest / I wrote this opus to reverse the hypnosis.” Haranguing and cajoling at once, Miseducation was intended to re-educate Hill’s listeners, to break the spell that enthralls people to the sparkle of American capitalism. These tracks are counter-spells.
Many of the other songs on the album are more syncretistic, crossing boundaries between R&B, rap, soul, and reggae. They foreshadow melody’s take-over of rap in the early aughts, post Drake. One of the most popular hits on the album, “To Zion,” was Hill’s powerful hymn to her newborn son, from whom it gets its name. That name, of course, derives from the Bible: Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem, and Hill rhapsodizes in the song in ways that recall Jeremiah’s giddy anticipation of a day when the people “shall gather and sing aloud on the heights of Zion…. Then shall young women rejoice in the dance / and the young men and the old shall be merry” (Jeremiah 31:12–13). Verse one begins with a measured delivery until Hill’s swelling joy, growing and kicking like the child in her womb, proves too much to contain in rapped verse and spills over into exalted harmonies: “The joy of my world is in Zion,” she croons with joy and delight. Hill was advised to terminate the life within her so that she could focus on her career. The song is about her refusal to follow this advice. Instead, she chose to see her child as a miraculous blessing in her life, a gift, not a curse. Suffused with the wonder of childbirth, the entire song is framed by the dream of Jeremiah, as well as by the story of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, a terrified and unwed young woman, and tells her that she will conceive and bear a son who will bring good news to the world. “But then an angel came one day,” Hill sings, “Told me to kneel down and pray / For unto me a man-child would be born.” Notice the formal, elevated speech of the King James Bible: street slang is common throughout the album, but here Hill makes use of a consecrated and stately diction, redolent of the archaic, dignified language of Scripture. This diction suggests that something out of the ordinary is happening to her, and she waxes ecstatic about it.
“I wanted it to be a revolutionary song about a spiritual movement,” Hill remarked in an interview, “and also about my spiritual change, going from one place to another because of my son.” Her comment applies to the album as a whole. One can even trace a spiritual development in the track list: it travels from anger and lament, in the opening rap of “Lost Ones,” to serenity, ending with the sublime “Tell Him”—a song of pure prayer and praise. It quotes St. Paul’s famous panegyric on love in 1 Corinthians 13 word for word. There’s nothing inventive in the song’s lyrics; its originality is to be found in Hill’s gorgeous phrasing, the notes bending, stretching, and sighing throughout the track. She caresses the verses with such sensitivity and nuance that they suddenly seem new and fresh, no matter how many times you’ve heard them before.
The music of Miseducation soars to sublime heights without losing its bearing here on earth. It does not overlook the struggle for racial, gender, and class equality at the heart of Black history and Black aesthetics. In this respect, the album itself, and not just its title, owes something to Carter Woodson’s classic work The Miseducation of the Negro (1933). If the purpose of Woodson’s book was to revolutionize the education of Black students—awakening racial consciousness, advancing moral and spiritual development, engaging social and political matters, and wrestling with philosophical questions—Hill’s Miseducation shares a similar purpose. It is an album that offers its own holistic pedagogy, a pedagogy of and for the oppressed. It bravely addresses social questions, questions of race and gender, but it also speaks of spiritual crisis and personal redemption. It draws all its fragments—its various musical and thematic elements—into a coherent and memorable work of art.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and we find ourselves in an entirely new climate completely at odds with the sunny, unclouded disposition of the “shiny suit” era. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” a song and video that epitomizes these troubled times, opens with South African choral melodies, cheery and placid, a perfect harmony of female a cappella vocals. The musical accompaniment is bare and minimal at the start, a light pattern of metal jingles from a rain stick or Egyptian tambourine, a slow finger-picked acoustic guitar, and bright and breezy male voices crooning the lines “We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you.” Childish Gambino enters the picture, strolling and dancing his way to a shoeless Black man strumming his guitar—a nostalgic image from the bucolic age of blues and folk music. After striking a “Jump Jim Crow” pose (hand on hip, leg bent, back contorted), Childish Gambino proceeds to pull out a gun and fire a blast at the bluesman’s head. The effect is shocking, brutal, grotesque, a jolting disruption of the carefree and blithe opening. Like a surrealistic image from the films of Luis Buñuel, the scene, and what follows, is dreadful and traumatizing, a subversive commentary on America’s addictions to guns, its racism and materialism, and social media.