20 Years Later, Still Complicated

Posted August 15, 2018 4:44 p.m. EDT

A lot of people have a lot of thoughts (not to mention feelings) about the elusive hip-hop star Lauryn Hill, but only journalist Joan Morgan could have written a slender book as capacious as this one. When Hill released her first and only full-length solo studio album in 1998, the ensuing critical and commercial success was so extraordinary that it fueled two decades’ worth of speculation about future projects and opinions about existing ones. With “She Begat This: 20 Years of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,'” Morgan takes an album that was a cultural touchstone — the kind of work that elicits ardent devotion and ardent backlash — and holds it up to the light, showcasing its brilliance and its shadows.

“I loved ‘Miseducation,'” Morgan writes. “I was one of the score of hip-hop loving and/or pregnant women who swore the album was soundtracking her life.” (One of the tracks, “To Zion,” was about Hill’s decision to have a child.) At the time of the album’s release, Morgan was putting the finishing touches on her first book, “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost” (1999), a blend of memoir and manifesto that introduced the term “hip-hop feminism,” delineating the contours of a movement that she and her “post-Civil Rights, post-feminist, post-soul” generation might call its own.

Morgan insists that loving something isn’t the same as giving it a pass. “She Begat This” makes a full-throated case for Hill’s artistic and historical importance, but this appreciation doesn’t translate into gauzy praise for some of the stickier parts of Hill’s career — including legal tussles over writing and production credits on “Miseducation.” Similarly, in “Chickenheads,” Morgan didn’t go easy on hip-hop’s prominent strains of misogyny and materialism. Love, she suggests, is too complicated to be reduced to flattery.

As Morgan recently put it to The Paris Review, “She Begat This” is resolutely a volume of cultural history, rather than a “track by track by track by track” treatment. The book depicts the 1990s as a pivotal moment, especially for black women who “were squeezed between competing narratives” of “having it all” on the one hand and President Bill Clinton’s Republican-placating policies — like welfare reform and the 1994 crime bill — on the other. Hip-hop at that time was settling into what Morgan calls “the dual sweet spots”: hitting its artistic stride while getting paid too.

By the time Hill released “Miseducation,” she was already known for her work with the Fugees, in which she staked her claim as a consummate vocalist and a ruthless emcee. (She spits out an indelible verse in “Ready or Not,” moving from the sibilance of chess and Eliot Ness to Al Capone and Hill as Nina Simone, doing something nasty to your microphone.) She had ended a tumultuous romantic relationship with fellow Fugee Wyclef Jean (Pras Michel was the third member of the group), and was pregnant with the second of five children she would have with Rohan Marley, Bob’s son. “Miseducation” landed at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and became the first hip-hop record — there’s only been one more since — to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

Hill was all of 23 years old when she released “Miseducation,” and she clearly meant business. After the sweet and dreamy intro of a teacher taking attendance (Hill is a no-show, perhaps a prelude to her habitual failure to show up for performances on time), the album begins with “Lost Ones,” a swaggering statement of ambition: “My emancipation don’t fit your equation / I was on the humble, you on every station.” This sounded like a rebuke to ex-boyfriend Jean, but with its echoes of “Bam Bam,” Sister Nancy’s pioneering feminist dancehall track, “Lost Ones” was more than a burned lover’s lament. What was special about the song was the “quality of Hill’s rage,” Morgan writes. “It was an exercise in precision.” Morgan straightforwardly engages with Hill’s critics, making a point to talk to those whose opinions don’t jibe with her own. Part of the current controversy over Hill is generational, with a younger cohort deeming her moralistic — “judge-y,” as Morgan’s millennial goddaughter puts it. In “Doo Wop (That Thing),” one of several hit singles from “Miseducation,” Hill delivers a sermon about self-respect and authenticity to women who “give it up so easy you ain’t even fooling him”: “It’s silly when girls sell their souls because it’s in / Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans.”

Even if the layers of the song and the video complicate a glib reading of Hill’s intentions, Morgan concedes that a good deal of what a regal Hill says bears a distinct resemblance to respectability politics. “For many fans,” Morgan writes, “Lauryn was seen as the desirable antidote to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown’s hypersexuality.” (It was no small irony, then, when an unmarried Hill’s pregnancies at the height of her career drew the unforgiving judgment of women who had always thought of her as a middle-class good girl from New Jersey, Morgan says, and were “less than enthused.”)

In the two decades since “Miseducation,” Hill has released a live album (the polarizing “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0”) and the jittery single “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix),” which was critically hammered for some baffling abstractions (“Transference, projections / Like Cartesian images”) and lines that sounded problematic, to say the least (“Quick scams and drag queens / Real life’s been blasphemed”). Hill said she had to rush the single out “by virtue of the impending legal deadline” — that deadline presumably related to the three months she was about to spend in prison for failing to pay income taxes.

But she still tours, and she still commands an authoritative place in a crowded cultural imagination. The rapper Drake sampled Hill’s “Ex-Factor” in “Nice for What,” his recent paean to women’s empowerment, speeding up Hill’s languid contralto into a cute, bouncy refrain. Hill then covered Drake’s track at one of her shows, replacing his lyrics with her own: “So stop acting like you didn’t grow up singing my songs.”

I suspect that Morgan would approve of this exchange between the stars. Her philosophy seems to be, the more voices the better; “She Begat This” is thick with competing opinions, as well as chunks of dialogue. Morgan is such a fluid and candid writer that I often wanted to hear more from her. But reflecting on “Chickenheads” in an afterword to a new edition, she describes how she modeled her own method on hip-hop, which has long pursued something more “faulty, contradictory, messy” than a lone, exacting voice would allow.

“Truth,” she wrote in that book, “is what happens when your cumulative voices fill in the breaks, provide the remixes and rework the chorus.” It feels like the right approach to an artist like Hill; her iconic album might be 20 years old, but our understanding of it is still a work in progress.


“She Begat This: 20 Years of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'”

By Joan Morgan

155 pages. 37Ink/Atria. $24.