LAURYN HILL The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse)
Lauryn Hill's 1998 solo debut has rightly become regarded as a classic, which, as the sticker reminds, earned five Grammies. It's a seamless confluence of soul, hip-hop, R 'n' B, reggae, social commentary, pop nous, singer-songwriter confessional and inventive thievery (the small print lists lifts from Wu-Tang Clan, The Doors, Bob Marley, David Axelrod and Steve 'Silk' Hurley, amongst others). The most obvious single reference point would be Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key Of Life" - it's hard to think of another album that matches "Miseducation"'s all-encompassing scope.
Threaded together by an extended schoolroom skit, just about every song here is startling in some way, but those that catch Hill at her most personal rise to the top of the crop. "To Zion" details her rejection of career in favour of motherhood, with some glorious guitar work by a pre-credibility rehabilitation Carlos Santana scampering all over it. She works "Light My Fire" so intuitively into "Superstar" that future generations might think Jim Morrison copped it from her, whilst gouging at the music business' lowest-common-denominator obsessions - "Music is supposed to inspire/So how come we ain't getting no higher?". "Forgive Them Father" is a howl of defiance constructed upon Marley's "Concrete Jungle", whilst "Every Ghetto, Every City" is sweet, autobiographical childhood nostalgia in the same vein as Stevie Wonder's "I Wish". "Nothing Even Matters" floats past like a little fluffy feelgood cloud, and the title track is as much Joni Mitchell as Aretha Franklin, bathed in scratchy vinyl sounds. (Where would hip-hop be if its practitioners had actually taken care of their record collections?!)
Tailing the main feature are a couple of unlisted cover versions: lovely as "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" undoubtedly is it apparently found its way onto the album without the artist's knowledge, and in keeping the karaoke ghost of The Fugees alive is perhaps a little misplaced in this company. Of course, the same accusation could be levelled at the glorious gospel of "Tell Him", but the relative obscurity of the source material, and the fact that its theme is a rather more comfortable fit with the rest of the album, elevates it to a higher floor.
Far from the kind of production-line R 'n' B that clogs up the airwaves, these songs are fleshed out with real guitars, Hammonds, horns, strings, brass and harps, keeping this sensual, fiercely intelligent music as real as the wooden school desk on the cover. The fact that a retiring-next-week Dylan enthusiast colleague is a fan of this album is the strongest testament I can pay to its cross-cultural, pan-generational appeal.