(The Root) — Aug. 25 marks the 15th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, arguably one of the most important albums of the hip-hop generation. The album was so resounding and influential that it is still cited by many artists as the greatest release this side of Michael Jackson's Thriller.
Hill's first album — an artistic medley of soul, hip-hop, gospel and traces of '60s black music — cemented the '90s. Several themes emerged from Hill's seminal work, including heartbreak, cultural agency, respect, forgiveness, hope and love.
Hill wasn't the first to create an album that sang to us. Mary J. Blige's My Life was the inaugural hip-hop soul album that addressed the many facets of urban love. Although themes of respect, heartbreak and forgiveness were key features of the hip-hop soul era, never before had a record encompassed them all congruently until Miseducation.
The album sold more than 400,000 copies in its first week and eventually went eight times platinum. After its initial release and three weeks atop Billboard's 200 Albums chart, Hill received 10 Grammy nominations, the first time a woman received so many in one year. She would also become the first woman to win five Grammys in one night. Included among those trophies was Album of the Year, the first time a hip-hop-inspired album won the category.
Miseducation was fresh, earthy and truthful. With 17 songs interspersed with interludes set in a classroom, Hill's lyrics were like bible verses for the late '90s. Hill effortlessly delivered parables that offered guidance to a spiritually starved generation.
The standout smash hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)" hit the airwaves in the summer of '98 like a battle cry. Hill expressly sang to the ladies: " … 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. Baby girl, respect is just a minimum."
She dedicated the second verse to the "pretty-faced men": " … Need to take care of their three and four kids men. They facing a court case when the child's support late. Money taking, heart breaking, now you wonder why women hate men. The sneaky silent men the punk domestic violence men … stop acting like boys and be men."
At this point in her career, Hill had seen just about enough glorification of the male ego, particularly in the entertainment industry, and she used "Doo Wop" as a vehicle to address the frontin' and flashin' that was a staple of our generation.
There were other songs that spoke directly to us, particularly men. Songs like "Superstar" and "Lost Ones," while serving as a release of negative energy from Hill's affair with Fugees leader Wyclef Jean, provided schooling on how to honor our manhood while striving to become our greatest selves.
Hill gave us ghetto love songs that were educational for the mass market, yet relatable to those in the hood. "I Used to Love Him" and "When It Hurts So Bad" — her duet with Mary J. Blige — were our versions of Aretha Franklin's "Never Loved a Man" and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." On her second single, "Ex-Factor," Hill transparently told the story of her relationship with Jean: "I keep letting you back in. How can I explain myself? As painful as this thing has been, I just can't be with no one else."
We recognized the agony she spoke of. It was familiar.
While the album was threaded with stories of lost love and heartbreak, Hill also gave us songs that inspired courage and forgiveness. "Forgive Them Father" told the story of backstabbers: "A friend once said, and I found to be true, that everyday people, they lie to God too. So what makes you think that they won't lie to you?" In a swift turn of thought, the song was interlaced with a statement Jesus made on the cross: "Forgive them father, for they know not what they do." The parallel to Jesus and Judas had an underlying message of forgiving in order to let go of the painful memories attached to hazardous relationships.
Hill poured out her soul, leaving an audience with words of inspiration and hope. "Every Ghetto, Every City" and "Everything Is Everything" fell in line with the tradition of black singers who sing to inspire their generation. In the same vein as Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley, Hill gave us words to remind us that our futures weren't limited by our past experiences. Hill wrote, "Let's love ourselves, then we can't fail to make a better situation. Tomorrow our seeds will grow, all we need is dedication."
That theme of loving ourselves was the greatest message Hill offered to the hip-hop generation and the entire world. By the time we reached the end of the album, we had already been through the ups and downs of a relationship, told off for bad behavior and strengthened to our very cores.
The final song was Hill's declaration that the album wasn't just written for our generation — it was written because she needed to hear every word she wrote. The single "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" shed light on her insecurities: "My world it moves so fast today, the past it seems so far away and life squeezes so tight that I can't breathe. And every time I've tried to be what someone else thought of me, so caught up, I wasn't able to achieve. But deep in my heart, the answer it was in me. And I made up my mind to define my own destiny."
Although it has been 15 years since the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, our generation still needs this album.
If she never decides to make another album, Lauryn Hill will stand as one of our greatest prophets, singing the parables of our generation and burning our souls with the lessons learned from her own miseducation.
James B. Golden is the poet laureate of Salinas, Calif., and is an NAACP Image Award-winning author and pop-culture journalist. Follow him on Twitter.