Cult Classics Album Breakdown 24

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

It was initially a joke that prompted a mate of mine to give me this album. He was convinced that I was so anti-hip-hop I wouldn’t even take it off him, let alone listen to it. Forever willing to be challenged, I took it and put it straight in the CD player when I got home. After that I never looked back. Hip-hop became a ‘thing’ in my musical dictionary.

I think the thing that grabs me most about this record is the power in which Ms Hill delivers her no bullshit stand against dickhead men who can’t stop hurting the women that adore them. It’s a record that bellows liberation from the rooftops, and bellows it LOUD. It’s a self-serving, self-healing album that just so happens to connect with millions. I’m not at all surprised that, moving into 23 years later, there still hasn’t been a follow-up. I mean, what do you say after this – when, as an artist, you’ve basically exercised your soul in one almighty blast? And, while we’re on the subject, the other thing that grabs me is the fact that I instantly imagined the likes of Roberta Flack, Aretha, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, and a whole host of Motown artists. That’s the point; this record has got serious Soul.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won a record five Grammy Awards from 10 nominations – there’s your retirement pot right there. It also reiterates how important this was as a cross-over record. I, for example, had never cared that much for or listened to hip-hop before this album slapped me round the chops. Hip-hop is at the core of Hill’s work, just as it was in her previous incantation, The Fugees, but it’s her ability here to garnish the record with bonafide Soul, elements of Reggae, splashes of Funk and some startlingly powerful Gospel that smashes the doors wide open to a huge audience. Ex-Factor, my favourite song on the album, is one of the great cross-over tracks I’ve ever heard, meandering between genres and blowing your musical mind skywards. Intensely personal, it’s one of those songs that never leaves the brain-worm jukebox.

The album is about the many manifestations of love. The emotions communicated here are complex and varied. I Used To Love Him is drenched in pain, though Nothing Even Matters is quite the opposite – a realisation laced with joy. It’s fascinating that both Superstar and Forgive Them Father could even be interpreted as attacks on Hill’s former bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel – relations declined rapidly after they both claimed Hill needed psychiatric help.

The astuteness of To Zion is staggering, and the beautiful optimism in Can’t Take My Eyes Off You really endearing. Having not been a broad consumer of hip-hop, there are a few tracks on here I still find testing, but generally the artistry and sensitivity pervading these songs completely submerge me. Lauryn Hill is a poet, and a damn good one. She’s also got a voice that, at times outspoken, commands your ear.

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is self-indulgent without being self-obsessed – and though that may seem like the biggest oxymoron ever, I know what I mean (LOL!). It’s an incredible skill to bare your soul whilst remaining universal. It’s a profound album that was forward-thinking at the time in its reaching for the new millenium, and displays the songwriting craft of the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to name a few – yes, Lauryn Hill has climbed the ladder into that bracket of greatness as a result of this one record. I got to see her 20th anniversary performance of this album in Manchester, and though she strolled on stage typically late, it had all the traits of a cultural event, not just a gig.

I never thought I’d be writing this review, but here I am. I’m saying it out loud – hip-hop has made my classic cult album blog. I didn’t think I’d ever go to North Korea or jump off the world’s highest bungee either. Isn’t life strange?!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Top track trio:

Ex-Factor

Doo Wap (That Thing)

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 18

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

Before Marvin Gaye was tragically gunned down by his own father on 1st April 1984, he’d already secured his legacy. This masterful album, What’s Going On, was the primary reason.

Responsible for massive global hits such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and SexualHealing, this multi-instrumentalist and three-octave vocalist was one of the most respected and successful Soul artists ever to grace the stage. His death was a waste – shot dead one day before his 45th birthday – a consequence of many feuds within his parents’ home. Marvin’s tale is a sad one lined with gold. I’m here to tell you that, in my opinion, What’s Going On, Gaye’s seminal 1971 album, is the goldest of all his gold.

What’s Going On is a concept album written from the point of view of a returning Vietnam War veteran, who arrives back home to the country he has been fighting for to see nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred. At the time, music wasn’t used to such subversion, and his label, Motown, had no previous history or experience releasing such profoundly political music. This was no Standing In The Shadows Of Love, though in Marvin’s case, the heartaches had already very much come. The opening title track – a very personal and brave statement – is proof in itself. Motown boss Berry Gordy rejected What’s Going On, reportedly calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Thank God he woke up and smelt the coffee.

Whereas the track What’s Going On is the universal declaration of pain, What’s Happening Brother is the personal appeal that peels Gaye’s skin right back. The Funk Brothers are the band bleeding such bitter-sweet sounds all over this – already a landmark recording after just two tracks. Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) is a moody and ominous admission that speaks fearfully of heroin addiction, giving us a glimpse at Gaye’s declining state of mind.

Save The Children is an anthemic, atmospheric plea with a universal message of peace and salvation, and God Is Love a religious dedication, rather ironically, to his eventual murderer, Marvin Pentz Gay Senior. By now in his early 30s, Marvin Gaye would accept nothing but complete control over his music, and you can tell – this is not a man sat in the shadows watching others work the faders. This is the most avant-garde record that Motown ever released; the softest Marvin ever sang with the loudest metaphorical voice.

The album highlight, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), is a magnificent, masterpiece of a track. It has been inducted into The Grammy Hall Of Fame, and boy, do the ghosts of these tracks appear all around us today. It’s an album full of songs that probably resonate more with the state of the world now than it ever did then. There’s not just relevance at the time, but a massive foreboding throughout this record. Despite it’s sorrowful message about the mistreatment of the environment, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Robert Palmer, MC Hammer, Todd Rundgren, The Strokes, Pearl Jam, Aswad and Boyz II Men.

Right On changes the landscape of What’s Going On, bringing in a Latin-Soul percussive element that is dominated by a flute – a beautiful change of mood and tempo. Wholy Holy is gospel – a hymn almost. Solemn but sensual. The closing track, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), brings the record full circle, ending in the same stunning way that it began. And yes, it makes me wanna holler.

As far as Soul records go, I think it gets no better than this. Soul sensibilities pervading such deep, spiritual subject matter. The man had many personal demons, but he was an incredible musician. One of the finest. Rolling Stone Magazine voted Marvin Gaye #6 on their ‘Greatest Singers Of All Time’ poll, and #18 on their ‘100 Greatest Artists Of All Time’. A legend, and What’s Going On the peak in a glorious career. It’s a must own record for anybody into music. Full stop.

This record set a precedent for change within that genre. The album went on to achieve mass commercial and critical acclaim, being voted ‘Greatest Album Of The 20th Century’ by The Guardian in 1999, and in 2003 voted #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ poll. In 2004 the title track, What’s Going On, was voted #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs Of All Time poll’. Huge plaudits for a song that was initially turned down for release.

“Mercy, mercy me,” his voice continues to plead, calmly, desperately, longingly, forever.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

What’s Going On

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)