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There will never be another Lauryn Hill.
Musically, she didn't capture or advance a trend, because she created her own inimitable sound. Even on a light pop track like "Doo Wop (That Thing)," her skills as an MC and her ability to fuse a live neo-soul feel with actual rapping and emotive singing stand out.
This isn't the shallow rap song with a catchy hook that every music critic complains about. This is the real stuff, marked with the heavy influences of the past that have traditionally been a mark of the genre, but graced with the freshness, originality, and social consciousness that have always kept hip-hop cutting edge.
According to back-up singer Lenesha Randolph, Hill had a clear vision of a barbershop-style vocal harmony on "Doo Wop." The harmonies were initially recorded a capella and laid over beats in what eventually amounted to 128 separate tracks on the song. But even with all that computerized mixing, Hill insisted that the entire record maintain an earthy, live feel, without overproduction on any of the vocals. (Source)
The vocals come through loud and clear on this track, capturing the empowering emotion behind the song: "The very timbre of her voice," wrote Touré in his review of the album for Rolling Stone, "that deep, oven-roasted sound when rhyming, the sweet, melancholy-tinged midrange she owns when singing, the way she always comes confidently from deep within her chest – it communicates a self-respect and self-love." (Source)
Critics praised not just the great sound itself, but the feeling and meaning behind the sound.
Hill was inspired by reggae and hip-hop, but she also clearly placed her work in the wonderful world of soul, that secular beauty birthed from Black church history. No one explains the meaning of Hill's musical influences better than LA Times music editor Ann Powers, writing for The New York Times:
The whole trajectory of rhythm-and-blues can be described as a journey, with plenty of baggage, from church to nightclub. What made the music so rich was not the simple union of religious content into pop but the human enigmas it illuminated. African-Americans, historically forced to adjust their own spiritual practices to fit within their oppressors' religion, created a consecrated language far more flexible than traditional Christianity had ever been. Soul music showed how that language, and the music that expressed it, could elevate people's understanding of carnal pleasures, personal relationships and social concerns. In bringing religion down to earth, it sanctified the commonplace.
Lauryn Hill enters into this context and finds universal lessons in contemporary scenarios. Although many of the songs on 'Miseducation' tackle the troubles of earthly love, nearly all of them make reference to the Bible or its God. The link she forges with this God replays the African diaspora's process of spiritual syncretism, or adapting a belief system to new circumstances, on a personal level. (Source)
The name "Doo Wop (That Thing)" was a somewhat random choice, says Vada Nobles, credited as a co-producer on "Lost Ones." "There was a box set that said "doo wop" sitting on the floor—the title for her single "Doo Wop (That Thing)" came off that box," Nobles told Rolling Stone. (Source)
Of course, the whole idea of "doo wop" is a shout-out to Motown-style harmonies that clearly inspired the song's music.
The title of the album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, came from a much more specific inspiration. Hill took the name from a well-known book by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the N****. Published in 1933, the book was ahead of its time in advancing a critique of the American education system from the African-American perspective.
Woodson claimed that, for those Blacks who were able to access it, education was so oriented toward a society of white supremacy that it often led to internalized racism. Essentially, it taught Black people to have demeaning views of themselves and other Black people.
Without advocating for segregation in education—he didn't need to because education was still legally segregated in most places—he argued that African Americans should be developing their own education systems that advocated Black empowerment and prioritized teaching about African-American culture and traditions.
So, Hill used the title of her album partially as a shout-out to a many-decades-long history of Black power activism.
Another source of inspiration for the album title was the 1972 autobiography The Education of Sonny Carson and its 1974 film adaptation.
The book and film both tell the story of an African-American man who decides to change his life after joining a gang and spending time in prison. Although both versions were released before Hill was even born, she has sampled dialogue from the film in her music. The message that a young African American has control over his own life and choices, despite his upbringing and prominent social convention, was one that Hill took to heart and has promoted in her music and her life.
James Poyser, the keyboardist on Miseducation told Rolling Stone, "The lyrics of that record really struck a chord with everybody, it really touched a lot of souls. The best songs are testimonies of life that everybody can relate to. Everybody can't relate to balling and drinking Cristal and running around with a million chicks and driving a Bentley. Everybody can relate to heartache and love." (Source)
But the adulation of Hill's persona of strength, beauty, and accomplishment was sometimes over the top. Music journalist Sia Michael wrote, "Hill is an anomaly—the elegantly beautiful, musically gifted class brain, the stern voice over your shoulder telling you to put those booty shorts and Bee Gees samples down, you low-expectations-having-muthaf---a. She's almost forbiddingly perfect, but so thanks-to-God about it that it's impossible to begrudge her genetically engineered superiority over your press-on nails self." (Source)
Of course, the exuberant praise for Ms. Hill came and went with her album's popularity, waning quite dramatically in the wake of her disappointing follow-up album, MTV Unplugged 2.0: Lauryn Hill (2002).
In the early 2000s, she was also offered many acting roles by Hollywood big-wigs, including a spot in Charlie's Angels—ceded to Lucy Liu for personal reasons—and the starring role in the film version of Tony Morrison's Beloved, which was given up when Hill got pregnant.
According to Vada Nobles, who worked on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it doesn't really matter what other people think. Nobles told Rolling Stone, "She ain't the type of woman that you gonna box in. She's Ms. Hill, that's who she is. And there's nothing wrong with that. She wants to be called Ms. Hill, fine. Maybe she feels that society has disrespected her, maybe she feels like you're not entitled to call me Lauryn, you don't know me and don't pretend like you know me." (Source)
Lauryn Hill walked away from popularity with her head held high, and people were disappointed that she never fully "came back."
Still, her mark on the music of the last two decades is indelible. According to John Legend, who played on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as an unknown pianist, "Lauryn had that blend of toughness and soulfulness, melody and swagger. She did it better than anybody still has done it. People are still trying to capture that moment." (Source)