Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill

There are no other contenders: “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is the greatest concept album in the history of recorded music.  Her lyrics are powerful and often profound.  Her rhymes are multisyllabic, and her rhyme schemes complex.  And not a single track deviates from its simple, yet sophisticated concept: Lauryn Hill missed school the day they taught us all about Love.

We’ve heard a lot of songs about Love, before. But Hill doesn’t give us just another lesson on Love, or another sob-story, or another fairy-tale. She tells us what she wasn’t taught about Love, and what she should have been. 

But what makes “Miseducation” so very great is the full realization of its concept, beyond the wildest dreams of its potential. There are concept albums more ambitious than Hill’s– some attempt vast narratives, some aim for psychedelic peaks of drug-addled surrealism, or might go-for-the-tackle on subjects older than the written word. They simply don’t get there.

As the album opens, we are immediately placed in the classroom. The school bell rings, and the students who volunteered to guest star on the New Record from Lauryn Hill of the Fugees are clearly totally blown and disappointed when attendance is taken, alphabetically. The teacher reaches the H names, and Lauryn Hill’s name is called. Then called again. No response. Again.  Lauryn is not present for this lesson. The teacher moves on to the next name.

The first song is “Lost Ones”. But these are no Lost Boys of Peter Pan’s Never-Never Land.  The first lyrics of the song lock us firmly in reality, where Capitalism and emancipation clash.  “It’s funny how money changes situations… my emancipation don’t fit your equation.”  Only three bars into the album and Hill has already sustained a multi-syllabic rhyme scheme– situations, emancipation and equation all rhyme the -a as well as the -tion– and has also included embedded rhyme– the end rhyme of equation with situations are combined with emancipation, which is embedded in the middle of the bar. By the pre-chorus, “You might win some, but you just lost one”,  the lost ones have been developed as those who are not swayed by the Man and its ideology.  

At the end of the “Lost Ones” track is another skit. The teacher figure begins to spell the word “Love” on the chalkboard, and the students pronounce each letter.  As he writes the final V, the entire class breaks out in giggles.  The lesson of the album, the one Hill missed, has been clearly spelled out.

The next several tracks expound on different types of love.  First, some profound types of love: “Ex-Factor” is about a romantic relationship that has ended, while “To Zion” relates Lauryn Hill’s love for her new child, who is named Zion.  As “To Zion” ends, we are “marching, marching” towards the holy city, and this holy love of mother for child.  

After those true loves come the false types of love: “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” ciriticises love for material things, while “Superstar” tackles love for fame.

Track seven, “Final Hour”, begins with Lauryn Hill’s mission statement for the project, “I treat this like my thesis, well written topic broken down into pieces”.  Hill is not merely rhyming, here, not merely writing songs, she is making a statement across the album, developing an argument, then breaking it down so it’s accessible to the listener.  The track marks a turning point in the album– with several types of love already developed, the album becomes more philosophical and abstract.

“Final Hour” reminds us “keep your eye on the final hour”, the hour we die, an hour Hill develops as the hour of Judgment.  The song reminds us to maintain our focus on what truly matters, not shallow, material things.  When this hour of judgment arrives, all that matters is how we have loved.

“When It Hurts So Bad” begins as a love song to heartache. “I loved real, real hard once, but the love wasn’t returned”. Deep in this emotion of heartache, Hill’s feelings have become “all that she had”, but this overwhelming emotion leads her to the possibility that “what you need might pass you by”.  As the song continues, the lesson that young Lauryn missed in school becomes “what you need, ironically, will turn out what you want to be, if you just let it”.  This lyric requires further investigation, so let’s engage in some close reading. 

Some confusion results from Hill’s fragmented object phrase. The phrase “will turn out” would ordinarily require an inactive verb. Had she completed this object phrase with a verb to-be, will turn out to be what you want to be, the full line would mean, what you need is what you want yourself to become.

If, however, Hill had completed the fragmented phrase with to-be and also a pronoun it– which would refer back to “what you need”– we would arrive at a different meaning entirely.  What you need, ironically, will turn out to be what you want it (what you need) to be. In this reading, what you need is what you want to need.  This is an extremely productive reading. 

Neither of the above phrases directly deviate in meaning from Hill’s sophisticated use of language– she may well be implying both of those words in her fragment. Pronouns often are excluded from a sentence, yet still implied, I hope this helps is often spoken in dialogue as hope this helps.  When verbs repeat, they easily can be implied, I wish I could rap like Lauryn Hill almost always means I wish I could rap like Lauryn Hill raps.

But as Hill sings it, exactly, word-for-word, excluding the probability of intentionally implied words, what does the line mean?  The action verb of the sentence, “turn out”, does have an alternate meaning, granted an improbable one given the context.  “Turn out what you want to be” could mean create (produce, manufacturer, churn out) what you want to be.  To apply this meaning of the word to the context, what you need creates what you want to be.  This is the direct opposite of our first reading. This type of lyricism can be called hermeneutical.

For we have arrived at three simultaneously co-existing meanings to this single line.  We had to dig pretty deep into the syntax to get there, but we made it.  Close reading wins again.

On “I Used to Love Him”, Lauryn Hill takes the backseat to her back-up singers, and they sing the majority of the verses.  This track begins to take the power of Love back, beginning with the first line of the chorus that opens the song, reversing the chronological order of that sentence. The chronology of the sentence, I used to love him, now I don’t is sung instead in the first chorus as, “now I don’t, I used to love him”.  The entire broken love affair is reversed in time. 

The song continues. “Gave up my power, ceased being queen, addicted to love like a drug of a fiend”.  Love is not always a positive force in the universe, it can topple mighty rulers, and turn them into fiends

 “Forgive Them Father” opens the theme of the God of Love.  Hill develops the ultimate Love as a forgiving entity.  The truest love is forgiveness.  Lyrics of interest: “Like Cain and Abel, Caesar and Brutus, Jesus and Judas, backstabbers do this… wolves in sheeps clothes who pretend to be lovers… Men who lack conscience will even lie to themselves… Everyday people, they lie to God, too.  So what makes you think that they won’t lie to you.”  There are bad men out there, but even they may be forgiven.

The lyrics on “Every Ghetto Every City” predominantly focus on Hill’s remembrances of her childhood, with the backup singers reacting to her references, call-and-response style.  Hill: “Everybodies’ Name was Muslim” Singers: “Children growing, women producing”– an often sampled lick used by Salt-n-Peppa six year prior, and Jennifer Lopez four years after.

The chorus ends with the lyrics, “Every ghetto, every city, and suburban place I’ve been make me recall my days in the New Jerusalem.”  Let’s close read again.

New Jerusalem is a reference to the Book of Ezekiel, collected in the Old Testament of the canonical bible.  The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel foresees a new city built on the ruins of the destroyed Holy Temple.  New Jerusalem represents a holy city of the future, a blessed destination, a mystical place of arrival.  Yet the lyrics very clearly put this wondrous place of the future in the past, “Lookin’ back, lookin’ back, lookin’ back”.  What do we make of this reference?  How do we apply a holy destination into a song about Hill’s youth?  

New Jerusalem is also known as Zion.

With Zion already developed as the name of Hill’s child, the holy city we strive to reach is not only a remembrance of one’s own youth, but the creation of new youths to live in this New Jerusalem.  Chalk another win for close reading.

In the final skit of the album, contained on the same track, a young man named Laurence is “about to give us a dissertation.”  The young man takes a loaded pause, and in his high pitched voice drops the bomb.  “Love is just a feeling”.  The students all laugh, but then agree, “Yeah, OK, OK.”

“Nothing Even Matters”, in four part harmony, repeats its title phrase a lot.  But just shy of six minutes into the song, “nothing even matters” evolves quietly and slowly into “nothing even matters, but you.”

The musical climax of the album occurs in “Everything is Everything”.  The staccato strings, Hill’s “Yo”, a rhythmic grunt, then the beat drops and the vibrato harmonies swell.  The title of the song contains a notion of a divine, fatalistic plan at work in the universe, best explained in the song as, “what is meant to be will be”.  The musical climax is enforced lyrically with, “when Hip-Hop meets scripture, develop the negative into a positive picture”.  Another mission statement from Hill.

Next comes a sonic resolve.  The eponymous title track– the last song listed on the CD and Vinyl insert tracklist– begins with the crackle of a vinyl recording and the brief tinkle of a tinny piano.  The chorus hits us with, “deep in my heart, the answer was in me.  And I made up my mind to define my own destiny.”  The answer to the question asked in the lesson Lauryn missed can be found internally.

The title of Hill’s album references the 1933 treatise by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “Miseducation of the Negro”.  Woodson’s book strikes at the segregated educational systems of the United States, wherein people of color are indoctrinated and conditioned instead of taught.  Crucially, Woodson’s book admonishes for autodidacticism and teaching one’s own self, instead of attending those broken schools.  To apply his thesis to “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, by skipping the school lessons on Love, Hill is able to teach herself about Love, and thereby make her own statements about Love.

And so she does.  After the last track listed on the CD and Vinyl inserts, there is a 30 second recorded pause, followed by two hidden tracks.

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” evokes the power of eye contact.  “At long last love has arrived, and I thank God I’m alive.”   The song implies a romantic relationship, and evokes love for and from her God.  The first lesson learned.

And the final lesson?  Speak about your Love to your love.  “Tell Him You Love Him” specifically genderizes the object of Love as a male pronoun, though once again allowing that this love could be for a divine father figure.

The first vocal is a confident chuckle from Hill.  She knows what she’s accomplished, here– another early ad-lib, “it’s like, huu, you know”, reenforces this reading.

The self-explanatory lyrics need no close reading, and deserve quoting in full:

Let me be patient, let me be kind
Make me unselfish without being blind
Though I may suffer, I’ll envy it not
And endure what comes (Daah)
‘Cause he’s all that I got (Uuu) tell him (Aha)

Tell him I need him (Yeah)
Tell him I love him (Tell him who it hit)
And it’ll be alright (It’ll be alright)…

Now I may have faith (I may have faith)
to make mountains fall (To make mountains fall)
But if I lack love, then I am nothin’ at all
I can give away (I can give away)
everything I possess
But left without love then I have no happiness
I know I’m imperfect (I know I’m imperfect),
and not without sin (Not without sin, nah)
But now that I’m older, all childish things end (Ohh)…

I’ll never be jealous (I’ll never be jealous)
And I won’t be too proud (Houu)
‘Cause love is not boastful (Noo)
Oooh and love is not loud…
Everything is gonna (Everything),
is gonna be (Everything) alright

The final, still self-explanatory verse deserves some emphasis.  These are the final words of the masterwork, afterall.

Now I may have wisdom (I may have wisdom)
And knowledge on Earth
But if I speak wrong, ooh, then what is it worth? (What is it worth?)
See what we now know is nothing compared
To the love that was shown when our lives were spared (Uuh)

Importantly, she says “if I speak wrong… then what is it worth”.  Hill has developed that this album is her thesis, is Hip-Hop scripture.  The final verse of the album must assert that she does not speak falsely.

In 2016, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Lauryn Hill, based one this single effort– she has not one other studio album– is the strongest competitor for another musician to win the award.  Were she to write one more album even approaching the textual complexity of “Miseducation”– one more album to return her to cultural relevancy– she would get it, and the million-and-a-half US dollars it brings with it.  The greatness of “the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” cannot be exaggerated.

Join us next week as we journey back to 1965, when Rock’n’Roll first hauls the concept album across the continent.  We’ll be deep diving into the psychedelic road trip of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61, Revisited“.

more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained

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