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Queen of the Hill

[whitespace] Lauryn Hill
Marc Baptiste

Superstar: With her new hit album, Lauryn Hill points the way for rap music in the next century.

Lauryn Hill educates the mainstream about hip-hop and rap

By Gina Arnold

HERE WE ARE at the end of the millennium, with 25 years of hip-hop history to look back on. But for an art form that has exerted such a profound impact on American culture, the genre has produced few really mainstream hits. Rap albums consistently top the Billboard charts, but you still don't see white housewives dancing to rap at aerobics classes, or rap songs getting played between innings at the ball game.

Lauryn Hill's new album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia), may not change that situation, but it comes a lot closer to doing so than many an album before it. Among its other virtues, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of only a handful of CDs--hip-hop or otherwise--in this decade to top both the Billboard charts and earn the full approval of critics everywhere. As of this writing, it's been No. 1 for three weeks.

Hill is the vocalist who sang the 1996 remake of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" on the Fugees' hugely successful album The Score. Before that, she was a soap star on the series As the World Turns. She is a 23-year-old mother of two who is drop-dead gorgeous. She has packed a lifetime of thoughts and wisdom into this dense and jazzy but extremely listenable record, which she both wrote and produced.

Because Hill is in an unusually powerful position for a young woman, she is garnering praise beyond her due right now. She's even being called the Bob Marley of the 21st century, which is a bit much. But there's no doubt that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a monumentally ambitious undertaking.

For one thing, it is long--77 minutes, including two wonderful hidden tracks at the end. Sadly, the record's length is stretched in part by tedious connecting tracks reminiscent of De La Soul's first LP, 3 Feet High and Rising. (De La Soul's connecting tracks featured a game show; Hill's consist of children in a classroom being led in a discussion about love.) The album uses an immensely broad canvas, encompassing soul, reggae, jazz and rap, and featuring such guest artists as Mary J. Blige, D'Angelo and Santana.

Finally, it is--as a rap album should be--extremely verbose. There's not a single pop moment on it, so to listen to the whole thing takes a certain amount of patience, but in the end it's worth it. Hill gives the listener a guided tour to everything that's good about rap: its ability to create a deeply evocative atmosphere, its articulate cleverness and, finally, its core of soulfulness and spirituality.

Unlike most hip-hop hits, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is not an aggressive record at all. Indeed, it has a gentle, scratchy sound that gives it a wonderfully homey feel, as if it's spinning on a close-and-play machine a good 20 years ago. (Hill's fascination with the past can be seen in the video to the single "Doo Wop," which is set in '60s Harlem, an era and a place she clearly idealizes.)

There are many nice passages on the album--and some dull ones, as Hill works out pretty much everything she has ever thought or said--but my own favorite is the song "Everything Is Everything," a strangely philosophic number about fate that uses a cello sample as its base beat.

"Everything is everything," Hill sings, "what is meant to be will be/After winter must come spring/Change, it comes eventually." On the album's final track, she prays, "Let me be patient, let me be kind, let me be unselfish without being blind," another uplifting sentiment.

THROUGHOUT THE ALBUM, Hill grapples with some big ideas, ranging from what it means to become a "ghetto superstar," on "Final Hour" and "Lost Ones," to what it means to become a mother ("To Zion").

Elsewhere, she comments bluntly about the failure of the black community to consolidate its gains ("I look at my environment and wonder where the fire went," she sings, sadly, on the title track). On "Superstar," a track that quotes the Doors, she disses other singers for failing to get beyond their personal gripes in their lyrics: "Come on baby light my fire/Everything you drop is so tried/Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain't getting no higher?"

Not all the songs are that weighty, though. The wonderful "Every Ghetto, Every City," is a paean to her youth (1988--"back when Doug Fresh and Slick Rick were together!") that never once stoops to the usual dis-fest. Instead, she reflects on the little things, like eating good popsicles, watching Saturday-morning cartoons and writing friends' names on your jeans with a marker. "Don't forget what you got," she advises. "I wish those days, they didn't stop."

It's an evocative picture of life in South Orange, and one that is unusual in rap, which is often riddled with bitterness. People talk a lot about hip-hop being a celebration of African American culture, but few rap acts really get beyond celebrating the shallowest aspects of success: things like sex, guns and money.

Hill's album really is a celebration, both musical and historical, and anyone who has not yet grasped what makes rap appealing would be well advised to buy this record and listen to the very end.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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