Lauryn Hill Deserves
by Burton Glass
Time. Rolling Stone. The New York Times Magazine. Teen People, for goodness sake.
That Lauryn Hill graces the cover of mainstream magazines may be no surprise. After all, the (former?) Fugee just walked away with five Grammies. That she richly deserves the attention, however, is the surprise.
Her arrival reminds me of that Volkwagon commercial where the car's blinkers and wipers are in time with both the background beat and the movements of the people on the streets: sometimes things just all come together.
Hill blends all that is good about hip-hop, soul, reggae, and rock without the self-consciousness of other genre hoppers. When she moves from the rap of "Lost Ones" to the slow-soul of "Ex-Factor" to the Stevie Wonder-funk of "Every Ghetto, Every City" on her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's natural, easy, authentic.
I like that she still calls South Orange, New Jersey, her hometown. I like that she's confident, but not boastful. Hell, I even like that Levi's is sponsoring her tour.
Best of all, of course, I like her music. Since I started paying close attention, no album has more richly deserved its "Album of the Year" label than Miseducation. (Even the Village Voice recognized this truth, when its cover placed Hill literally in front of Lucinda Williams, the actual victor in the weekly's annual critics poll.)
Who was the last artist to straddle the major strands of pop music so well? Prince, sure, but he's largely failed to grasp hip-hop, the dominant pop music style of our time. One could make an argument for Michael Jackson in his pre-rap heyday, but (like Prince) he was too fucking weird.
Yes, yes, it's just one solo album, not a career. But I'm talking about this moment, alone, this CD, as a stand-alone work, Lauryn Hill, as a performer knocking them dead with a 16-piece traveling band. No one can touch her.
It's tempting to spin out a significance that may not be there, but she demands it. Hill delivers on nothing less than the promise of multicultural pop for modern America.
C'mon, she's a Jersey girl, as American as Bruce. As a child, she memorized Motown and Stax classics, and founded her school's gospel choir. She's grounded in black American music, which is to say American music. Hill then inhaled deeply the energy of hip-hop, then reggae, and plain old pop.
The Fugees, to my mind, were underwelming, and seem more so in light of Miseducation. The CD works as a summertime humalong, and it works as social commentary. Best of all, it works your butt.
Her emergence plays bigger than other hip-hop artists who ruled the charts. We chuckled at MC Hammer, and gangsta rap seemed like a cartoon (still does). Puff Daddy sells records based on tired samples. (I'm sorry).
Maybe Hill's success will open up a space that wasn't there for A Tribe Called Quest, now sadly gone for largely financial reasons. The Roots, with a near-perfect new CD, Things Fall Apart, and their embrace of live instruments, may step in. Or OutKast, opening for Hill on tour, could catch fire.
Let's hope. In the meantime, if we're really living in the "Hip-Hop Nation," as Time's cover proclaimed, I'll vote for Hill. She deserves every Grammy, every magazine cover, every push of the repeat button on my CD player.