[Editor's Note: The Boat author Nam Le will read at Powell's Books on Hawthorne on Thursday, June 5th, at 7:30 PM. Preorder signed editions here.
Recently I took a long drive in a rented car. On the way, I listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and remembered myself back to 1998, when I was an undergrad who couldn't understand the full context of the album's achievement but felt the charge that came with it ? that sense of new claim to new space art-of-moment always carries.
She was 23 years old. Back then, that didn't matter to me, but this time I found myself moved by the album's boldness. The first full track, "Lost Ones," marks a bewilderingly confident choice by Hill to strip back her talents before she even begins; she raps with martial, almost monotonous, effect, over a bare beat. "Some wan' play young Lauryn like she dumb," she blares, "but remember, not a game new under the sun." She's cleansing herself, you realise, from her past ? from the spectre of sellout she's already met (as member of supergroup The Fugees). From this point, content and form merge, as scripture (here, Ecclesiastes) and street-lingo are driven home in a Caribbean patois that begins to make sense and whose bluntness accommodates the song's declaratory, end-rhymed aphorisms. Then suddenly, with nerving veer ? she's singing, her voice full of the famous smoke, but fire, too ? "you might win some but you just lost one," the line reshaped again and again, actively seeking articulation, layering harmonies on the verge of dissonance, flare-lit now by a single, sublime note in an upper register, a clarion sinking slowly into something like a Middle Eastern wail. And this, for me, is one of her inferior performances. This is what Lauryn Hill does: she wrong-foots you, then leaves you in awe because, in retrospect, where else would you have gone?
The next song's the one that does me in. "Ex-Factor" is one of those pieces (like Radiohead's "Paranoid Android") that not only questions the mainstays of song arrangement but shatters the small box of modern song structure. (More to the point, it breaks my heart.) A transition from verse to chorus via bridge falls back on itself, into more hurt verse: "See, I know what we got to do: you let go and I'll let go too." Note the short, faltering, monosyllabic words that embody Hill's wariness of resolution, be it of question or cadence, hers an unfinished music of swoop and swerve, augmented fourths and diminished sevenths. And the slower tempo, especially against the drawn-out backing of Rhodes and Wurlitzer organs, showcases the full shelf of her voice (and what a voice it is!) to contain such simultaneous abandon and control. No one ? then or since ? can move a note so wildly around, can so skip through the modes, can scat or ad-lib, like Hill, and yet she's capable of laying down multitrack harmonies so precisely each oscillation syncs perfectly with the others.
What impressed me most, and newly, I realised, was that Hill's technical virtuosity was never used for its own sake. All her talents served the song ? the project of its articulation. In "Ex-Factor" ? a song about the unspeakable anguish of clinging to, while cleaving from, a lover ? melodised words give way to the gorgeous, a cappella, near-inchoate ache of the hook ("Cry for me, you said you'd die for me / Give to me, why won't you live for me?"), and then, as near to ineffability as we've come, the hook is further reduced to just the held, haunting words: "care," "there," "cry," "give." There's Beckettian integrity but absent the austerity ? above these single-word bars Hill's longer-leashed voice is allowed to grieve: "Where were you when I needed you?" And as affecting as the song is at this point, as full the feeling ? the lament, instead of fading out, builds, incredibly, again ? richly, darkly climaxing with catharsis through, of all things, an electric guitar solo!
Here, then, is music ? art ? as ecstasy, as engagement in the fullest ways available. More than just breaking open the conventions of hip-hop and soul on Miseducation, Lauryn Hill brought with her a sense of self-permission. Permission to sing, to rap, write, remix, arrange, and produce. Permission to create a concept album, a spiritual confession, a social and political screed all at once. To honour her various heritages by daring to use them for her own ends. That was the lesson that most moved me. Hers was the strange mouth that entered a room and sucked all the oxygen to itself ? because its voice was so strong, so singular ? but still, she gave out her breath as though it would stop, as though it mattered, and, most crucially, as though she was the only one who could decide what mattered.