The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
August 25, 1998 brought the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—a musical judgement day that strengthened the contemporary soul force already in full effect. Sometimes an album radiates so much and has a lasting effect for decades down the line, that it becomes its own chapter, working as a guide for the future.
While "floetic R&B and hip-hop" is not an actual term, this coining makes sense when examining how The Miseducation successfully melds an assortment of contemporary mainstream music’s most popular black genres with the motifs and themes that routinely inhabit our existence.
On this particular album, we’re lead by an artist restoring her faith and trusting in love again after experiencing deception. To navigate these lessons, Ms. Lauryn Hill uses a pencil, her book of thoughts, and older wisdom. Through that, she sets the rules for others on how to make this branch of R&B and hip-hop a commercial entity.
Welcome to REVOLT’s Master Class on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and how it defined the emerging trend of floetics.
This lesson starts with the album cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Why? Because it enforces the central aesthetic behind floetic R&B and hip-hop. When you think of what the sound of this genre could be, what might come to mind is poetic lyricism flowing with a R&B groove and hip-hop presence. Or the words of a journal or diary coming to life as a song, if you will. Hip-hop and R&B in itself is already poetry, but this style—the one perfected by Lauryn Hill—is direct with acknowledging how writing plays a part in the musical craft.
Her debut album’s front image is comprised of a wooden desk that contains a pencil holder. Laying in that oval cubby is a Columbia Ruffhouse Records-branded, No. 2 yellow pencil with a missing eraser— something that suggests Lauryn Hill’s music isn’t capable of rubbing out past mistakes, but rather embraces them as the final life message on the page.
As some bored students do during class, they start to drift off, doodle, and carve their mark on school property for succeeding generations of students to know “I was once here.” That defacing for this album cover is the LP title etched above a sketch of the recording artist sporting her signature locs. It’s not small on the scale of someone slyly writing their first name, or an obscenity; it’s bolder, in your face, making a grand statement meant to be noticed.
The way The Miseducation plays sonically, conceptually ties in with the album art. We immediately understand why the graffiti graces the cover: Lauryn is one of those students in class, but she’s immediately inattentive to the lessons on love. Her teacher, Newark poet-turned-mayor Ras Baraka, initiates a roll call underscored by an acoustic guitar. Everyone responds they’re “here,” except for Lauryn. She enters a dream state, instead teaching herself, gradually checking in during outludes of tracks throughout the album.
With her “diary entries,” Lauryn gets personal as a solo artist, separating herself from The Fugees trio she began with. Following the album’s “Intro” is “Lost Ones.” Its vibes are reminiscent of The Fugees’ outlaw brand of hip-hop mixed with R&B, which emblazoned their 1996 opus The Score. That’s indicated by men chattering in the background of the song’s beginning; they sound like her former bandmates. Many interpret the lyrics of this break-up letter as a diss towards Wyclef Jean. But its larger than that in terms of context, examining how the money of the industry “can change a situation," how “miscommunication lead to complication,” and what it takes to gain “emancipation.”
One element of floetics that The Miseducation executes masterfully is its ability to apply the personal experience to the cultural implications of society. It’s branded by conscious R&B akin to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), an album that helped her fall asleep as a kid. On that album, he too takes on a role for his project’s larger concept: a Vietnam War veteran returning back to America, crying “What’s Going On?,” seeking to find peace, friendly skies, not to be punished “with brutality,” and restoration of the environment.
Throughout The Miseducation, conscious R&B tangoes with informed rapping and the intonations of hip-hop. “Every Ghetto, Every City,” “recalls [her] days in New Jerusalem,” the nickname of New Jersey. She shares her experiences in the South Orange suburb of Newark—drawing upon relatable imagery such as beef patties, record stores, and popsicles on a Springfield Avenue—for all her black people across America. This exploration of growing up in the ghetto takes after the older inspiration of Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy,” (1972) where the title’s subject has “to face responsibility” once he grows up.
This coming-of-age narrative is strongly present in floetics, its message delivered as the musical equivalent of parents instructing a child through their own experiences and faux pas. Prior to the release of The Miseducation, Aretha Franklin released “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” February the same year. Lauryn Hill co-penned that song, which features the Queen of Soul giving motherly advice to an innocent rose who should resist a toxic relationship. Aretha herself has contributed to floetic R&B with “Respect,” which spells out what she’s demanding from oppressors in the Civil Rights era.
The Miseducation seems to probe the consequences of what happens when a mother figure such as Aretha is ignored. She’s lead into disbelief and heartbreak in “Ex-Factor,” still in love with someone who toys with her emotions after the relationship comes to an end. Through that misfortune, she finds spirituality and a new purpose through the birth of her joy “Zion.” At the end of the album, on the titular track, she reflects on all her lessons, backed by a keyboard, and underscored by the jump scratches of a record player’s needle hitting a vinyl disc’s groove.
Besides the inclusion of conscious R&B, the floetic umbrella is a potpourri of other genres. Each song on Miseducation contains a component of West Indies riddims, neo-soul, jazz, and gospel. All of these sounds are all intertwined thanks to the diasporas, but Lauryn’s project is the all-time best at lacing them together. It intentionally sets out to be universal as its pages of poetry are meant to be heard (and then resonate) around the globe. Because of its wider appeal—with artistic creativity and control so poignant, it couldn’t be denied—Miseducation won Album of the Year at the 1999 Grammys. This, and the fact that “Doo Wop (That Thing)” became a No.1 hit, meant that a movement of albums and singles modeling after the aura of Miseducation were sure to come.
The neo-soul circuit benefited the most from Lauryn Hill’s pioneering spin on what Erykah Badu and D’Angelo had solidified in the mainstream. “Nothing Even Matters,” a breezy ballad with the latter, evokes the sentiments of falling in love during a summer that’s hectic, but conjointly perfect with a soulmate. This carefree journey into love, with an air of poetic brilliance, would be matched by other notable projects at the turn of the new millennium into the first few years of the aughts.
Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 included “A Long Walk” while D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” from Voodoo plays alongside India.Arie’s “Brown Skin” or Floetry’s “Say Yes” (written by Marsha Ambrosious who’d later give Michael Jackson “Butterflies”). Then there’s Common and Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop),” which delves into the Def Poetry cadences that pop up throughout the sound. While on the opposite end, Mary J. Blige who guest-appears on Lauryn's "I Used To Love Him," experiments with these sounds on her personally reflective LP, Mary.
Due to her relationship with Ziggy Marley at the time of recording, she had been swayed by his Jamaican roots and the patois spoken on reggae music. This is prominently heard on “When It Hurts So Bad,” which knocks with a darker tinge of concrete hip-hop; “Forgive Them Father,” which features dancehall artist Shelley Thunder; and “Lost Ones,” which finds a then “young Lauryn” rapping in patois. The binding force of the reggae fusion into soulful R&B is the album’s central reliance on spirituality refuge. On “Forgive Them Father,” bought artists preach to the blind and naive who “know not what they do.”
“To Zion” is the most direct in its usages of faith-filled lyricism and a gospel choir. This is attributed to the singer’s Baptist faith. As a dedication to her newborn son, Lauryn ties religion with the life of a living human—trusting in the miracle set before her after a complicated loss of another soul. This spirit has repeatedly been modeled throughout R&B history, notably heard on Cheryl Pepsii Riley’s 1988 debut “Thanks For My Child.” After Lauryn’s personal offering, other divas who have respected her craft have made their own spiritual odes to their offspring. Whitney Houston jumped for joy when presenting Lauryn with Album of the Year, as she borrowed a few pages for her album My Love Is Your Love. In 2013, Beyoncé cooed in lullaby to her first-born “Blue,” while Mariah Carey harmonized with Dem Babies on 2014’s “Supernatural.”
This motherly instinct of sorts, had birthed a generation of young women figuring out their larger positions in society, and the inner messes romance could cause. Joining Lauryn Hill in the Grammy darling circuit with similar floetic instincts was Alicia Keys. Her Grammy-winning and No.1 smash “Fallin” (2001), is driven by her talent with classical instrumentation combined with her passionate songwriting. With the keyboard-directing narrative, Alicia Keys brought Mozart to this brand of soulful R&B, just as Lauryn did Zora Neale Hurston. Of course, this would be elevated by The Diary of Alicia Keys, which included “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Diary,” and “Karma.”
Of the latest generation of artists still chipping away to make a name in a present climate that hardly recognizes R&B, and of those that keep the legacies of Lauryn Hill alive, Tink first comes to mind. Her four-part Winter’s Diary mixtape series features her scribbling her ranging emotions on pages, navigating love in the hood of Chicago. Starting in 2012, listeners have witnessed her grow from wanting to be in a “Bonnie and Clyde” partnership to standing on her own after being caught up in the “Limelight.” While it seemed Aaliyah was her intended inspiration—there’s a sprinkle of “4 Page Letter” existing in Tink’s discography—but far more supplying of Miseducation realness.
Tink’s body of work channels the fire behind “Doo Wop (That Thing),” as she enacts the once jilted voice that now has the knowledge to spew, simultaneously warning the sisterhood and brotherhood. There’s “Ratchet Commandments,” the 2015 equivalent to Lauryn Hill’s signature track, “Doo Wop.” It’s one of the many examples after the track did its thing in which a woman confidently emcees and sings about respecting her values beyond the promiscuity of young love and their existence in the rough and tough. In that phase of R&B, which had a stronger presence more than 10 years before Tink’s start, women had been hitting with their own examples: From Jerzee Monet’s “Most High,” Ms. Dynamite’s “It Takes More,” Amanda Perez’ “Angel,” and even Amy Winehouse’s work on her first LP Frank. Joining Tink in the present would be Jhené Aiko, who documents her Trip.
In recent years, 2016 subtly broadcast how influential The Miseducation remains. One wouldn’t immediately consider this—especially as we’re still on the lookout for new Lauryn Hill music of any kind. At that point, it had been 16 years since she released MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, her last studio album. The sporadic live performances and various takes on “what went wrong, Ms. Hill?” persisted as 2016 became the year all about addressing who was in the running of legendary status. The year was unanimously regarded as one the best years for album releases with the major hitters releasing their own Thrillers and Miseducations.
Starting with the women, the three main hitters of the year: Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Solange released a trinity that brews in the ethics of Lauryn. For Rihanna, ANTi worked as a glitchy virtual diary of navigating new waters of romance and balancing artistic integrity with growth. Beyoncé harkened more on faith and the African deities on LEMONADE to discern the strife of black women in America. Solange capitalized on that objective on A Seat At The Table, opting for her role models, Master P and her parents, to lecture the moments they were forced to process their black identity. The binding force between all three projects, and what propelled them to the top is their focus on poetry and the tranquility that can bring.
Then we have the men who went the route of religion balanced with the revolution: Kanye West and Frank Ocean. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo relied on the gospel and holy wordplay of titles to separate his hip-hop project from the others. The album’s central track, “Famous,” sampled Sister Nancy and Nina Simone, musing over the motif of fame intersecting reality—a move that comes from the school of The Miseducation. Generating his solo start from the days of Def Poetry Jam and The Chappelle Show, the former polo wearing emcee and producer manages to keep a floetic philosophy alive, even through the thinly veiled electronic distortions of each era. Kanye’s reliance on Nina Simone as a muse fits perfectly with that of the woman who once spat “so while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone.”
Of course there’s the genius lineage existing in all three pop figures, their states of mind always a topic of conversation as their words and actions push the conversation more forward then what society can digest as a whole. Someone else who fits in that category would be Frank Ocean, as Blonde borders this out-the-box genius narrative while incorporating elements of Christianity (for example, “Solo”).
The Miseducation closes with “Tell Him” as its bonus track, a reflective ballad that expresses gratitude for making it to the other side and through the pain. What the album has brought to many in its 20 years of existence, is a sense of healing. It moves with the wisdom Lauryn Hill professed she gained in the song's lyrics, and its sentiment is both hopeful and gracious. It’s a fitting end for an album that works as the bible of floetic masterpieces.
More by Da'Shan Smith: