Day 5 of the #mayvinylchallenge had me twisted. Best side or solo project. What does that even mean? I was looking at the entries and got even more confused: do you count solo work after the original band broke up? What if the side project becomes the main project? I had a few things in the air, from Ty Segall’s Sabbath rooted Fuzz project to the one-off between Ginger Baker and Fela Kuti. But the minute I saw The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sitting there on my shelf there wasn’t a second of hesitancy. This was my favorite album of 1998, and a sterling example of someone stepping out from the shadow of a popular outfit to blow the doors off the music world. Whatever you think of Lauryn Hill how, this album is incredible from start to finish.
I don’t remember exactly where my head was musically in 1998, but I recall the way Miseducation hit me upon first listen. Here was the soul and R&B I loved from the 60s and 70s, injected with the modern attack of hip-hop that blended jazz, rock, and an open, beautifully organic sound that was instantly seductive. Lyrically it was doing things I hadn’t really discovered in modern music (it would be soon after I would fall for the music of artists like Eryka Badu, Jill Scott, and others). Hill’s role in the Fugees was never hidden – particularly after the massive hit of “Killing Me Softly” but that didn’t prepare me for how much her solo album would expand the sonic palette of Wyclef Jean was hinting at on The Score, nor how open and direct her lyrics would be.
Now it feels like Hill is more known for tax evasion, 3-4 hour delays for rare shows, and her MTV Unplugged session which if anything chronicled a woman in conflict, opening her heart in tormented poetry reaching for connection. Even when it’s not a success, it feels so raw and honest I can’t help but be moved by it. But nothing then or now diminishes how effective Miseducation is. Carlos Santana’s guitar against the righteous anger of “To Zion,” the gorgeous ache of broken love in “Ex-Factor,” the Stevie Wonder funk of “Every Ghetto, Every City”…each song feels fresh and could have been recorded today, yesterday, 40 years ago or 50 years from now. The fact that it takes 14 songs before we get to “Everything is Everything” which is my favorite song on the album is a testament to just how loaded this album is.
And for just a little bit of extra icing for the cake there’s that cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” that’s simply exquisite. I get lost every time I put this record on. I don’t think there will be another like it for me. Sometimes records come out of the blue to find you, to connect you to an entire world of sounds you never heard before. This did that to me back in 1998, and each re-listen brings shades of that discovery back.