Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

album cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

This week, I’ve been listening to Lauryn’s Hill’s debut solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” from 1998. Though I was aware of its existence, I missed out on this album when it came out. I was well aware of the group Lauryn had just left, the Fugees, through their cover of “Killing Me Softly” from radio play. Lori Lieberman recorded the original, but it’s more likely that the Fugees cover more resembles the Robert Flack recording. Lauryn Hill’s singing was great, but I found the percussion and reggae vocal injections (“one time.. two times..”) annoying.

The Fugees had recently split up in 1997 and Hill began work on her this solo album. Bandmates Hill and Wyclef Jean had been romantically involved during their time in the Fugees. Jean continued the relationship even his marriage to another woman. During this affair, Hill started dating Bob Marley’s son Rohan, who was already married with two children. Rohan and his wife soon divorced and he and Hill stayed together and she soon had a son with Rohan. These are the circumstances under which Lauryn wrote this album, which touches on many of these topics.

Apparently, Lauryn drew some inspiration (and samples) from the movie “The Education of Sonny Carson.” I don’t know if there was much inspiration beyond the title, but the whole movie IS currently on YouTube. Several moments that reminded me of Stevie Wonder, especially “Every Ghetto, Every City.

From what I can gather in just one week, there’s an over-arching theme to the album running through between-song skits and emphasized by the album title. During the opening track, we hear an elementary school class start with the roll-call and Lauryn Hill is absent. She is absent on the day that the class learns about love, as revealed throughout the rest of the skit segments throughout the album. The point being that Lauryn missed out on the lessons of love and had to learn the hard way, by making mistakes. That’s probably how we all do it, actually.

Lost Ones

The first proper song of the album “Lost Ones” slam right into a rhyme-filled response to an ex after separation. Hill explains how she is the emancipated winner after the breakup. The chorus repeats “You might win some, but you just lost one.” referring to both Lauryn Hill and the battle.

The drum machine punches right in the middle, record scratches syncopation leading up to bar changes. Backing vocals echo and repeat the rhymes at the end of each line. The accompaniment is hard-hitting, but sparse. There’s not a lot going on underneath the vocals. Drum machine and record scratches run through the song, dropping out occasionally for emphasis. Dub-style echo-delay effected keys and guitars stab on the fourth beat of the verses, but even those are below the forward drums. A very low bass mostly rests, but plays notes to mark the movement from between every two or four measures.

There’s nearly non-stop rhyming, which has the effect of making some of the lyrics feel like punchlines. The verses do not have the same number of lines (18, 20, and 16), which is kind of strange. The first verse has the following rhyme scheme: A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-B-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A. The last line is the refrain “You might win some but you just lost one.” Hill delivers that line that doesn’t rhyme different, playing with the fact the third to last syllable DOES fit the rhyme scheme. The second verse: A-B-B-A-A-B-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-D-D-D-D, and those B’s are arguably slant rhymes of A. These lines are full of religious and cultural references, allegedly tying these comments directly to personal subject matter. Much lays on idea of temptation, repentance, and judgement.

Every man want to act like he’s exempt
Need to get down on his knees and repent
Can’t slick talk on the day of judgment
Your movement’s similar to a serpent
Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?
Consequence is no coincidence
Hypocrites always want to play innocent
Always want to take it to the full out extent
Always want to make it seem like good intent
Never want to face it when it time for punishment

Ex-Factor

The feeling changes with the soulful next track, “Ex-Factor.” Here, the kick drum is still the strongest part of the accompaniment, but there’s much more instrumentation. A simple two note piano motif repeats at the end of several bars, creating movement. There are two organs: a gospel organ playing extended chords through a rotary speaker in the right channel, and a jazz organ playing ascending bright notes in the left channel. Where Hill rapped in the previous, here she sings beautifully. Both of which she does extremely well.

Lyrically, this song shows another emotional layer to the same breakup of the “Lost Ones.” Hill sings more about loss, confusion and helplessness in the face of betrayal. She’s been lied to and hurt; still accusing, but instead of preaching, she’s asking why. With this pair of tracks, we’re given two sides of why Hill should move on.

It could all be so simple
But you’d rather make it hard
Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars
Tell me, who I have to be
To get some reciprocity
No one loves you more than me
And no one ever will

Doo-Wop (That Thing)

“Doo-Wop (That Thing)” mixes some instrumentation of doo-wop with hip hop. The song, however, lacks the doo-wop chord progression, but rather has an strange iii-ii chord progression. The horn riff plays a IV-iii-ii, with a pause after the ii chord. You can feel the resolution to the tonic, but it never actually happens. I like that.

The cautionary lyrics talk about one-night stands and reckless dating. Hill advises both men and women to grow up, be true, and sincere. She also warns about the temptations of sex that can lead to betrayal and dishonesty. Wordplay happens throughout, sometimes with lines rhyming with each other and featuring plenty of clever internal rhymes.

Talking out your neck, saying you’re a Christian
A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn(gin)
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who you going to tell when the repercussions spin?
Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem

James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Live at the Apollo”

Album cover for Live At The Apollo

I’ve been listening to James Brown’s live album “Live at the Apollo” from 1963, this week. The record captures an amazing performance of James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo in Harlem the previous year. It’s a great collection of R&B, Soul, and the beginnings of Funk The Famous Flames provide the backing vocals. The band consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, an organist, and seven horns. Among those horns, we can hear saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, who played with Brown until 1999 and had a couple of solo albums in the 80s.

The album opens with an aggrandizing track with organist Lucas “Fats” Gonder introducing James Brown, “So now ladies and gentlemen, it is star time… the hardest working man in show business.” Then Brown performs shuffling rhythm and blues track “I’ll Go Crazy” with a guitar line that rolls along like a locomotive. The song starts without any accompaniment as Brown sings with response from the audience: “You know I feel alright! (yeah) You know I feel alright, children (yeah) I feel alright!” He and the crowd just sound like they are having a great time and the interactions are real.

Try Me

Brown starts the soulful third track “Try Me” with just his voice singing the titular first line. We’ll immediate recognize the doo-wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V, as well as the fairly typical doo-wop rhythm pattern. The Famous Flames sing ‘dooo… ooo’ underneath Brown’s lines and then answer back, repeating his lines “Try me.”

As with many of Brown’s songs the emphasis falls on the first beat, but that is less prominent here out of respect for the genre. The hi hat hits on every eighth note, with just a mild touch of swing; brushes hit the snare every second and fourth beat. The bass walks up and down, bringing the change from one chord to the next. The bass also supports the backing vocals, by matching their rhythm when singing.

Night Train

“All aboard the Night Train!” Brown opens their cover of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 tune “Night Train.” Though Forrest’s tune was really a reworking of an even older song “That’s The Blues, Old Man” by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1940. Hodges was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, and the melody may have some roots there as well.

It’s a melody I know well; I grew up hearing the cover by Marvin Berry and the Starlights from the Back to the Future soundtrack. This version by James Brown has tremendous more energy, groove, and funk. The addition of vocals grants it even more excitement. They aren’t even necessary, but they make it personable and tie it together into the loose concept of losing and finding love that seems to run through the album.

The song follows a basic 12 bar blues chord progression, with a distinctive clean guitar riff. The bass drives along, a nonstop groove train. I love the choppy chords played on the organ through a Leslie speaker. It’s energetic and lively. This constant shuffling grooving energy clearly had influences on many, even post-punk rock bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I like that

Lost Someone

Brown keeps “Lost Someone” going for over ten minutes, frequently teasing the audience building suspense. He utilizes this technique throughout the album: leading up to something to create anticipation and then dropping into the next segment or song. In this case, what feels like an extremely extended bridge turns out to be a drawn out coda that ends suddenly with the next song.

In spite of, or because of, I’m not sure.. this was my favorite song on the album. No small feat considering for nearly 8 minutes, the band is playing pretty much the same two bars over and over. Sometimes, the horns will pull back a bit, or work an octave lower. A mid section of under 2 minutes has no horns, but then they return as if to say, “We’re not done with you yet.” Sometimes the bass will hold back, or the drums will pause. Then after Brown builds up intensity, like a preacher, the drums will hit the snare and cymbal. The audience will scream in reaction.

This is a strong example of what the Music Genome project calls Extensive Vamping. The band will play the same short phrase repeatedly while a lead instrument will riff, or solo, over top. In this case, James Brown’s voice plays the role of the lead instrument. He teases and excites the audience. Encourages them to scream along, “Don’t just go “aah”, go “ow!”

I got something I want tell everybody
And I got something I everybody to understand now
You know we all make mistakes sometimes
And all the ways we can correct our mistakes
We got to try one more time
So I got sing this song to you one more time
I want you to know I’m not singing this song for myself now
I’m not singing the song only for myself now
I’m sing it for you too
And if I say stuff that makes you feel good inside
When I say that little thing
I say that little part that might sting you in your heart now
I want to hear your scream
I want to hear say ow!