Lauryn Hill only wanted to make honest music.
“There’s too much pressure to have hits these days. Artists are watching Billboard instead of exploring themselves,” she once said, discussing her groundbreaking release The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. “I wanted to make honest music. I don’t like things to be too perfect, or too polished. People may criticize me for that, but I grew up listening to Al Green and Sam Cooke. When they hit a high note, you actually felt it.”
Seventeen years ago Tuesday, Hill was poised to build an artistic empire that would have changed the future of R&B forever. With the power of one record she did end up rerouting the genre, but that honest album catapulted her into the center of an alien world of musical celebrity. The chaos that followed all but forced her to withdraw from public life; rumors that she had lost her mind, become a staunch racist and joined a cult followed her into silence. Swept into the vortex of fame and fortune, she couldn’t find the balance to become a leader in the space. While she’s gradually starting to do more shows and has recorded new music, we have yet to hear another studio album in nearly two decades.
But we still have Miseducation — one of the most undeniably powerful statements of modern R&B the world has ever heard.
The impact: Without even trying, Hill ended up creating one of the most critically and commercially successful albums of her day. An album’s numbers can’t always illustrate its impact, but in this case they do: The first week out it sold more than 420,000 copies, breaking the first week sales record for female artists. It went eight times platinum, receiving rave reviews wherever it landed. Come Grammy time, it was nominated for 10 awards and won five, making Hill the first woman to achieve either feat. It also became the first hip-hop album to win Album of the Year, introducing the genre’s stylings to a much wider audience.
The organic instrumentation and heartfelt lyricism has become the highest standard of excellence for so many of our greatest songwriters — including Beyoncé, Adele, Drake, Kanye West, and D’Angelo. “Lauryn had that blend of toughness and soulfulness, melody and swagger,” John Legend told Rolling Stone in 2008. “She did it better than anybody still has done it. People are still trying to capture that moment.”
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