I WAS 11 YEARS OLD when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released and subsequently flopped in my lap in 1998. I had never heard of the Fugees, nor did I have any knowledge of the dexterity of Ms. Hill's imperative emcee skills. I was still trying to survive sixth grade via a rushed purchase of Ma$e's Harlem World (which proved futile once my peers learned my mom demanded I purchase the censored version—rapping along with that album was a game of Mad Libs played far from her ears). I possessed neither grace nor rhythm; I was a mouth-breathing white girl with untrained limbs and a face more prone to inflammation than expression, trying to keep afloat in an inner-city school where I was the blaring minority.
And so I say this with the most fervor my secular brain can conjure: Thank God for that record. After the Ma$e mishap, I quietly awaited exile—which, in a sea of junior-high fates, is easily the worst. At that age, our burgeoning minds are devoid of any social insulin, thus highly susceptible to rejection-induced sugar shock. I would have never ascended from the depths of those first pubescent convulsions without Miseducation, because as I was becoming enmeshed in its fibrous composition, my peers were similarly being drawn into its layers of soul, beauty, and beat. The tracks bridged the gaps between us. Our pains and fears were anesthetized by Ms. Hill's experience-based teachings, and surely we listened to her ("How you gonna win when you ain't right within?") more than anyone else.
It did not matter that I could relate more with the kids in the album's irritating "classroom" interludes (which were embedded in the tracks! You couldn't even skip them!) than Hill herself; something insisted I memorize every cadence of every word. I scribbled frantic mental notes as she languished over simple phrases—"These buildings could drift out to sea/ Some natch-her-rull catastrophe"—and marveled at the fluidity with which she moved from unwavering croon to rapid-fire rhyme (whose skull-shattering messages swept just above my scalp until many years later). To say the least for the most amount of people, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill completely changed the game.
If you've assigned any thought to Ms. Hill's whereabouts in the past 10 years—as if you can pretend her absence hasn't been gaping—surely you are familiar with the rumors surrounding her disappearance, following a lawsuit filed by her New Ark collaborators and an emotional breakdown during 2002's heart-wrenching MTV Unplugged No. 2.0. You've probably also heard about her recent appearances—she's made audiences wait for hours, only to take the stage and brazenly proclaim her self-worth before practically yelling through those songs so emblazoned in our heads. Her voice has worn thinner—likely from raising five children—though beneath her indifference and jaded views of the music "machine," her beauty and grace are infallible; they'll rise to the surface again.
For if nothing else, Lauryn Hill remains statuesque, an emblem of astute womanhood and self-preservation, of love and inspiration, all of which are ultimately borne of an immeasurable passion. And even if she never puts out another record—which is most likely—Miseducation will be forever relevant. From sniveling preteen to grown lady, every time those first scuzzy beats of "Lost Ones" hit it's exactly the right time.