The summer I turned 13, my family moved from Virginia Beach to Washington, D.C.
We were involuntarily apart the year before, but now we were together; the five of us packed in the car on the way to our new life. The trip was only four hours but it felt like forever.
I already had my own taste in music which coincided with hip hop positioning itself at the forefront of entertainment. I was born into the genre. It was me and I was it. We were intertwined. Despite that budding but mostly private love affair, I had absolutely zero control of the radio while we were on the road. But there was a compromise. We all agreed to listen to the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
I let it wash over me, again and then again. Vibing out. Baking in the Virginia heat.
When her debut album dropped in August 1998, Lauryn Hill was already a bonafide superstar. She secured acting roles in theater and on-screen, most notably as Rita Wilson in Sister Act II alongside Whoopi Goldberg. But it was the success of the Fugees' second album, The Score, which solidified her as an indelible artist in the music industry. It went 7x platinum in the US and sold 20 million copies worldwide. The group’s singles, a rendition of "Killing Me Softly," "Fu-Gee-La," and "Ready or Not" showcased Lauryn’s talent as a vocalist and emcee.
Following that success, she began recording The Miseducation... at 22. To date, it’s her only studio album. And it made her a legend.
Last year in a rare interview, she told Rolling Stone, “There were ideas, notions and concepts that I wanted to exist, I set off in a particular direction and kept going.”
I felt that. It was new to me. Lauryn’s music reflected my experience. Up until that point, I absolutely adored Hip-Hop but there was a distance between my life and what I consumed. She closed the gap. The Miseducation... is a lot of things. It’s a female rapper going toe-to toe-toe with her male counterparts. It’s a deeply soulful woman singing her heart out. But what I mostly identified with was that album is a black girl’s coming of age story.
Over the last twenty years, her music, and that album in particular continues to show up for me.
"Ex-Factor" reminds me reciprocity is essential to a relationship.
I saw so many women, including my mother bend over backwards for the men they loved. Here, Lauryn was recognizing she was treated unfairly but admitting she participated in her own cycle of pain. The only answer was to let go.
Over the past twenty years there are many people I loved and let go of. Others who let go of me. And subsequently, we learn to love with a greater sense of empathy, compassion, and kindness. Ex-Factor crystallizes that never ending journey of humanity.
When I hear "To Zion," Lauryn’s dedication to her son, I think of my niece and nephew. I don’t have any kids, but when they were born, it was the first time, I felt like my heart was walking around outside my chest. The song is extraordinarily powerful. Her connection to him is visceral. The love pours out of her.
I dated a man with four kids during the pandemic. We’d listen to music often as the breeze cooled his Brooklyn 3rd floor walk-up. I watched him bob his head as "To Zion" played. Without looking up he let out, “this is a big, big tune.” He was so in love with the music, his own children and fatherhood itself. And I fell even more in love with him.
Lauryn’s music crosses gender, class and culture. It is a rare combination of specific and universal.
My absolute favorite song is the titular track, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," a lesson in introspection, faith and self-love. Lauryn belts out, “Deep in my heart, I knew the answer was within me.” When the outside world becomes overwhelming, I often revisit those words.
Lauryn wasn’t just a star interested in adoration, rather she pointed us to the biggest give we have ourselves.
She is an insanely talented musician, a cultural force and oftentimes an enigma. Much is made of her personal life, show etiquette, and absence in the music business. But what she made was incredible. I continue to let it take me to new places just like that hot August day in ‘98.