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She Begat This

20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

About The Book

A stirring and eye-opening celebration of the enduring legacy of one of the most acclaimed and influential albums of the 90s—The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Released in 1998, Lauryn Hill’s first solo album is often cited by music critics as one of the most important recordings in modern history. From being chosen by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry to being declared the second greatest album by a woman by NPR to influencing subsequent generations of artists such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Janelle Monáe, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has remained a cultural landmark.

Award-winning feminist author and journalist Joan Morgan delivers an expansive, in-depth, and heartfelt exploration of the seminal album, its enduring place in pop culture, and the pioneering woman behind it. Featuring exclusive interviews and in-depth research, She Begat This is both an indelible portrait of a magical moment when a young, fierce, and determined singer-rapper-songwriter made music history and a crucial work of scholarship, perfect for longtime hip-hop fans and a new generation just discovering this album.

Excerpt

She Begat This
L-Boogie’s “Superstar” rises from behind the bar of Chez Lucienne and cuts across the din of the Lenox Avenue restaurant. It’s a Tuesday night, which means the strip is poppin’ and the spot is predictably filled with thirty- to seventysomethings, all sporting the particular mix of blackness so signature to Harlem. A quick scan reveals well-heeled professionals and government workers, sartorially inclined artists and wizened old hustlers, wide-eyed recent transplants and a seasoned old guard. The accents that pepper their revelry expose antecedents that span the global South. Mississippi to Mali. Accra to the Antilles. Brixton to Bed-Stuy. Still Harlem, despite the increasing number of white faces or the proliferation of new eateries boasting fussy fusion menus and downtown priced cocktails. In deference to this fact, the bartender assists the evening’s transition from the cocktail to dinner hours with a predictable mix of ’70s cookout classics, ’80s R&B, and an amalgam of ’90s soul and temperate hip hop. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the apparent fave; all sixteen tracks woven diligently throughout. This is a realization I greet with an audible “Fuck.”

That came out wrong. I loved Miseducation, at least as much as the nineteen million or so folks who’ve bought it since 1998. I’d even go as far as to say I probably loved it more than every mofo in those governing bodies that bestowed it with seventeen cumulative Billboard, American Music, Grammy, and MTV awards. Why? Because I was one of the score of hip-hop-loving and/or pregnant women who swore the album was soundtracking her life. And I still love it enough that when, almost twenty years later, a 2017 NPR roundup, “Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women,” ranked it number two, (Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue was number one) I decided to give that decision a pass—although I’ll leave it to the article’s writers to defend how Miseducation managed to beat out Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You, Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, and Carole King’s Tapestry since that’s a claim I’m sure not even the woman currently known as Ms. Hill could reasonably stake.

My response was prompted by fatigue. Ever since I’d agreed to write a book on Miseducation’s twentieth anniversary, the album had been on heavy rotation. Tonight’s dinner was supposed to be an escape. The goddaughter, thirty-two, and my dining partner for the evening, found the attempt to find respite here both amusing and naïve.

“Well, what did you expect?” she asked, referencing the amount of middle-aged folks in the crowd. “This is exactly her demographic.”

“I mean, I get it,” she continues. “I loved it too. When I was thirteen.” The silent, but definitely implied, “Before I knew better,” begs a follow-up question.

“And now?” I ask. “Do you still listen to it?” “No,” she responds. “Not really. Nowhere near as much. I mean the whole thing is just so Hotep. She’s so judge-y.”

The admittedly froggy “Fuck you mean judge-y?” that instinctively runs through my head is a function of well-honed, former hip-hop journo reflexes, the kind of shit that’ll always take place when someone critiques one of your top five. And when it comes to best emcee barometers, that holy trinity of lyrics, delivery, and flow—L-Boogie circa 1996–2002 was one of the best emcees of all time. Pause and note: I did not say one of the best female emcees. And I did not stutter. One of the best to ever do it and during the era routinely referred to as hip-hop’s golden age. The bar was set mad high. To put her arrival in context, when The Score, the Fugees’ critically acclaimed sophomore album, dropped in 1996, it joined a cohort of bangers that included Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, OutKast’s ATLiens, Nas’s It Was Written, Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core and Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na, which were all released in that same year. Punctuate that with the hand claps it deserves.

Commercially speaking, the genre had also worked through some of its growing pains. The ’90s was the decade that hip hop broke through its previously gold ceiling to become a billion-dollar industry, hitting the dual sweet spots of artistic achievement with all the material trappings of platinum success. “We were definitely in this arrogant phase of weeding out the bullshit,” says Schott Free, former senior vice president of A&R at LOUD Records and the executive producer of era greats like Mobb Deep, Dead Prez, and Roc Marciano. “At this point, if you put in the time, came up with a masterpiece, and packaged it right, you were going to get your just due. If you were making something worth hearing and that people loved, it was going to speak for itself.”

By now, the framing of the Fugees’ (comprised of Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michél) origin story as the greatest thing in hip hop that almost didn’t happen is a well-known tale, but it is one worth recounting here since, at least according to Jayson Jackson’s recollection, it was Hill’s noteworthy talent on their otherwise meh debut (Blunted on Reality, 1994) that helped save the group from getting dropped. Jackson, one of the producers responsible for the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, was Hill’s former manager and close friend. “At the time I was an intern at Columbia Records for a product manager. We had four groups,” says Jackson. “The Fugees was one of them. I remember listening to Blunted on Reality and feeling like it was all over the place, but one particular song, “Some Seek Stardom,” was a standout. It was just Lauryn. The shit that she was saying, the way she was rhyming and singing it, made me go, ‘Yo. This girl is incredible.’ Lauryn was still filming Sister Act 2 at the time, but it was completely clear that as an artist, she was doing some new shit. She had a distinct voice. She was a star.”

Of the four groups assigned to Jackson’s boss, only one, the ’90s girl group Xscape, was performing well enough to stay on the label. As Jackson watched the other two groups get unceremoniously dropped, he urged his boss to do something. “There was this Mega Banton song, ‘Sound Boy Killing,’ that was on the radio and [was] hot at the time. I was like, ‘yo, get the motherfucka who did that.’?” The “something” was a remix and the motherfucka in question was a Caribbean-American producer named Salaam Remi, whose trademark was a sonic ability to seamlessly cross the cultural hyphen to traffic dancehall vibes between urban sounds. In a Hot 97 interview, radio deejay Charlamagne Tha God playfully referred to Remi’s production as “the green card for Jamaican artists.” Remi, whose long roster includes Super Cat, Mega Banton, Patra, and later Amy Winehouse, Nas, and Fergie, sees it that way too. Referencing a moment in the ’90s where dancehall and reggae enjoyed an unprecedented popularity in American music, Remi said, “It was all the stuff that was coming out of Jamaica that needed to get on the radio for hip hop and R&B. A lot of those songs were stuck at the airport, so to speak. I got them the visas that [helped] them get through.”

Auspiciously for the Fugees, Remi agreed to do the remix for the relatively modest price of five grand, but it was money that they didn’t have. In a display of typical hip-hop ingenuity, Jackson hustled the PR budget and said they were throwing a party. Instead, they used the money to pay Remi, who dug deep into the old-school hip-hop crates, sampled Harlem Underground’s “Smokin Cheeba Cheeba” and flipped a lukewarm “Nappy Heads” into a fiyah bun remix. “They sent me the Fugees because they were Haitian, and they needed that bridge to figure out how to get this group into the mainstream,” said Remi. “They had talent. They just hadn’t figured out how to channel it. We were coming out of a moment in hip hop where groups like Onyx, who rhymed really fast, had a lot of success,” Jackson explained. “But there was a shift going on. Hip hop was slowing down a bit more and Salaam knew it. He told the Fugees to slow their shit down, let people understand what they were saying, and add a catchy hook. Then he just bodied it.”

The remix set the groundwork for the success of The Score. Journalist and dancehall expert Rob Kenner recalls a recent conversation with Wyclef regarding the concept behind the album. “Wyclef said they wanted to make a sound system project. The first draft of the award-winning cover of “Killing Me Softly” was originally conceived as “Killing a Sound Boy,” said Kenner. A sound boy clash, for the uninitiated, is the Jamaican concept of battling deejays and the musical antecedent for deejay battles in hip hop. “If you go to a dance in Jamaica,” explains Kenner, “they’ll play anything from Peabo Bryson to Celine Dion to ‘Tainted Love.’?” It can be the corniest, poppiest record and they’ll make it dancehall just by the way they present it. With The Score Wyclef was very explicitly taking up the Fugees as a sound system and incorporating the very Jamaican idea that “Any record that we pull out of the box can be dancehall-ified once we put our flavor and attitude on it.” Despite its success, it was never meant to be a pop crossover record. It was very much conceived to be a “soundbwoy fi dead” record.” That moment had been a long time coming, one that began with an ease in US immigration policies in the late 1960s that led to a dramatic increase in immigrants from the Caribbean, a significant number of which congregated in the ghettos of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

For reggae superstar Nadine Sutherland the Fugees embodied the paradigm of Caribbean people who live in America who embraced the duality of their culture. “The Fugees embodied the Caribbean experience in the diaspora,” explained Sutherland. “I know that Lauryn Hill is American, but she’s part of that movement and people identify her with that dual paradigm, that syncretic merging of the two cultures. It was the Fugees who helped me realize that Caribbean people living in the US could be like “Yeah, I’m Caribbean. I love my country and I love my reggae, but I am also into hip hop and there was no major shift in their psyche to say it. They didn’t feel as if they had to embrace one identity over the other. They were okay identifying with both.” The introduction of cable television to Jamaica also gave Jamaicans on-island a new cross-cultural fluidity. “When BET came to Jamaica, we got access to everything that was happening in America. You could see people switch between cultures at the drop of a hat. Now it was nothing to see a Caribbean kid dancing to rap music and then turn around and dance to dancehall. It was an interesting paradigm.”

Certified six times platinum in domestic sales alone, The Score made the Fugees one of the bestselling hip-hop groups in history, an accomplishment many attributed to the distinctiveness of the band’s femmecee. There was no question that Lauryn Hill had heads on notice. Her award-winning cover of “Killing Me Softly” proved her mettle as a vocalist to contend with—and her valor. In the words of my girl Kierna Mayo, “No one is supposed to be able to touch Roberta Flack and survive.” Lauryn did and subsequently hand-delivered the soul legend, wrapped anew, for an entirely new generation. When asked about her ability to flex deftly between emcee and songstress, Schott Free sums it up bluntly: “If Mary [J. Blige] is the queen of hip-hop soul, I don’t know what we can call Lauryn, because Lauryn can actually rhyme. Mary can’t rap. So, what do we call Lauryn? The influence?”

Even more significant for Free was the fact that it was accepted that Lauryn was writing all her own lyrics—at a time when the same could not be said of the two most popular female emcees. “People said that Jay-Z was writing a lot of Foxy [Brown’s] stuff. If you go back now and listen to the flow you can hear it. And we already know the deal with Kim because I was right there watching Biggie do it. I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Oh I wrote Lauryn’s rhymes.’?” In the current era of feminist critique where women—in both scholarship and shit-talking—recast Lil’ Kim as the transgressive architect of a new liberated sexuality in hip hop, Free’s point is worth underscoring. That Kim could spit was never in question, but Free is not the only one convinced that at least some of the bars allegedly freeing the proverbial “P” were scripted by the same genius force that bought us “Dreams of Fucking an R-n-B Bitch.” A fact worth putting in your feminist theory and fucking with. Along with the fact that Hill wrote her own rhymes and she wrote for and with her crew in an egalitarian, mixed-gendered, collaborative approach that was rare for hip hop at the time. By the time she dropped the “Ready or Not” verse that infamously invokes Elliot Ness, sess, witches brew, voodoo, and hexes then likens herself to Nina Simone right before firing the scatological shot heard around the world, it was Wu-Tang clear: Lauryn Hill was nothing to fuck with.

This was in part due to the utter uniqueness of Hill’s components. Black. Female. Ivy Leaguer. A Columbia University English major blessed with a broad literary arsenal that simultaneously reflected her dexterity as a wordsmith and her acute understanding of the latent but deadly power in the economy of words. Lauryn was nice with hers. She had rhyme schemes that could stalk a lyrical adversary with panther-like precision. With a singsong playfulness, she could engage her silky alto and disarm anyone who made the mistake of taking her too lightly, then spit a death blow with the percussiveness of machine-gun rounds or metronomic machete swings, depending on her mood.

The Score’s success placed the Fugees in league with The Roots—the biggest live hip-hop act at the time—comparisons were inevitable. Jackson saw it as apples and oranges. “With The Roots, people really weren’t stressing their beats so much. It was more about their live instrumentation and the fact that these niggas, Black Thought and Malik B., could rhyme for hours. The Fugees,” he continues, “were the poor man’s Roots. Clef had the guitar. Jerry Duplessis was on the bass. Sometimes they had a drummer and a deejay. Sometimes just a deejay.” Unlike The Roots, who were considered masters of live performance, the early Fugees shows were a mess, peppered with “cultural” acts of randomness meant to illustrate the group’s ties and affinity to the Caribbean, and Haiti in particular. “Sometimes they’d bring a goat out on stage to give props to their Haitian roots. It was weird shit. The audience would laugh at them every time. People thought they were a joke.” The laughter, however, would quickly end as soon as the crowds heard Hill crooning from backstage, a strategy that the group quickly implemented. “Clef and Pras would come out rhyming and people would still be drinking and talking like, ‘Whatever. These niggas is whack.’ Then Lauryn would start singing from behind stage and the audience would go quiet, every fucking time. That’s when it would be like, ‘Okay. Now let’s start the show.’?”

The demand for Lauryn to go solo would start almost immediately, but Jackson, who watched the group’s collaboration process almost from the beginning, felt assertions that Lauryn was carrying them with her talent were at best short-sighted. “I think the idea that her talent was being pimped to make a name for Clef and Pras began with the live shows. Then the press would write reviews of songs and claim Clef was a musical genius, which he is—that nigga can play every instrument, sing in four or five different languages—but then they’d start to write things that made it seem like Lauryn was just an instrument to his genius. Really, they were more like The Beatles. Clef was Paul and Lauryn was John. They were best together, but apart, they were some motherfuckers too.” Time would bear this out. Wyclef Jean’s first solo effort, The Carnival, was released in 1997 to wide critical acclaim and eventually certified at double platinum with two Grammy nominations. Miseducation followed it with ten nominations and a record-setting five wins, breaking the one set for female artists by Carole King and her album Tapestry in 1971.

There is more of course. The kind of things that become clearer after two decades of hindsight. For example, as critics we made much ado about the fact that Miseducation weaves a tapestry of sound that borrows liberally from soul, reggae, and hip hop but what is really more remarkable is that Lauryn was able to do that because she envisioned an identity for herself that was rooted in a diasporic blackness that seemed to not only travel seamlessly between Ethiopia, Newark, Brooklyn, Brixton, and Kingston but also through decades, pulling from black musical traditions of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s at will. Much of this has been shallowly attributed to her time in the Fugees and later her common-law marriage to Rohan Marley. But while her bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michél, bear the hyphenated negotiations of identity common to first- and second-generation immigrants, Lauryn Hill is strictly African American. There was no ackee and saltfish and boiled dumpling cooking in the Sunday morning kitchen of her childhood. No parents rousing her out of sleep with sharply punctuated patois. Instead, she deliberately wrote herself into the discourse of diaspora, drew on the global nature of black music, and fashioned herself a citizen of the world. She took from that legacy what she wanted and asked no one’s permission, in part because she treated hip hop itself for what it is—a Caribbean-American art form. Understanding its roots, L-Boogie explored its routes. As a result, her blackness, and its reach, was ubiquitous.

She was also arresting. And not just because she arrived as a working actress (she had a reoccurring role on the soap As the World Turns and a lead in Sister Act 2 under her belt), one who understood presence and how to werrrk a camera and command a stage. To quote writer, activist, and filmmaker dream hampton, “Lauryn Hill was our most beautiful pop star from that era. Line up Whitney, Janet, and Mariah. Lauryn was the most beautiful. Those wedges. Those legs. Those thigh-high shorts. She was just this perfect little thing.” But while beautiful pop stars are the stuff of cliché, it was the type of beauty Lauryn Hill possessed that made her as much of a visual intervention as she was a musical one. Deep chocolate brown skin with a mane of dreadlocks, she was the type of post–fly girl pretty common to pregentrified Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy, but was completely ignored by the mainstream media. And if we are to be nakedly honest—and really, after twenty years in, why not?—by plenty of hip-hop era black men in ways that were demonstrated by both their dating and video casting choices. In a sea of sew-ins and relaxers, Lauryn was a naturalista long before YouTube tutorials talked black women through the radical choice of actually liking and growing our hair the way nature and our gene pool intended. And way before the twenty-first century’s natural hair revolution created a half-billion-dollar industry of conveniences to support that choice.

Lithe and leggy, Lauryn was a fashionista deeply invested in a personal style, who liked nice things but seemed to flow above the fray of ghetto fabulousness and its accompanying tendency to serve as high-end designers’ billboards. She liked her hip-hop tinged with a rootsy glam and hints of an ethereal ’70s sexy grounded with sobering touches of militancy—a combo that was deceptively accessible, simultaneously aspirational, and ultimately inimitable. Making cover-girl moves where no dreadlocked black girl had gone before—Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan. Shit. Essence—we have Lauryn Hill to thank for the present-day Gucci models who sport TWAs (teeny-tiny afros) and Saint Laurent girls showcasing blackety-black-black cornrows, the kind without extensions. In short, Lauryn was the visual precursor for #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock. We turned to her for soul affirmations that we were more than enough before the digital revolution granted us hashtags that enabled us to harness archives of similar fierceness easily on Instagram and Tumblr.

Routinely lauded for its themes of self-love, empowerment, and broken-heart-bounce-backs, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has earned itself the rank of classic in contemporary American popular culture. And yet, two decades after its debut in 1998, so little has been written about where and when Miseducation entered. More specifically, that it was sired by a ’90s kind of girl at the end of a century that would dismantle the Berlin Wall, witness an act of American-on-Americans terrorism in Oklahoma, and usher in a digital age that would change the dynamics of human interaction and intimacy as we formerly knew it.

And because she was a ’90s kind of black girl, she came into adulthood watching the police receive passes for brutalizing black bodies—the murders of Amadou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpurs and the beating of Rodney King—in ways the next century would render routine enough to warrant a #BlackLivesMatter movement. She saw a million black men march on Washington and watched Los Angeles burst into riotous flames. She also saw a lone black woman stand firm against the nomination of a black Supreme Court judge and far too many black people dismiss her claims of sexual harassment as a Jezebel’s coercion with white racism. Specifically, as a black woman she would watch the white president who was jokingly (and ultimately ironically) referred to as the first black one, sign in legislature—the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that would devastate her community both politically and economically, systematically destabilizing the structural conditions necessary for #BlackLove to thrive for decades to come. She also saw a president whose own love triangle played itself out in a public scandal of an impeachment trial while the pain of her private one gifted a generation with its own vehicle for healing and catharsis.

And make no mistake about it. If you were a hip-hop-loving black girl in the ’90s you were deeply in need of some healing. You’d already started steeling yourself for the battle ahead when hip hop, in its quest for commercial dominance, chose corporatization as its bedmate. By the time it was revealed to the world that virulent misogyny (not to mention homophobia) were going to be mainstay ingredients in its increasingly formulaic recipe for SoundScan success, you’d already peeped the writing on the wall. You, the black and brown women who’d helped create the hottest party of the late twentieth century were being summarily written off the guest list, while Becky and Barry Middle America were greeted at the velvet rope with VIP wristbands.

The music you loved rebranded you the sacrificial cow and left you to a careless death—one by thousands of lyrical lacerations. You were not alone. The ’90s was the era when what was formerly “black” got rebranded as “urban.” In turn, it opened up shop and rolled out a welcome mat and passed out flyers with hooker-level solicitations: “We sell culture here! Feel free to appropriate!” Meanwhile entire black music departments disappeared at record labels, absorbed and neutralized under the auspices of “pop.” By the time Biggie and Pac were gunned down six months apart (1996 was a mixed bag like a mothafucka), you could hardly keep track of what you were crying for. We were still trying to create the language—for what it meant to love hip hop, black men, and still hold on to yourself.

But back to the judge-y goddaughter.

I’m feeling a bit defensive. After all, judge-y is the lack of grace millennials fail to grant the generation prior who didn’t grow up with “binaries are bad!” and “gender is fluid!” as givens. The one that came of age before postblackness was a thing and PhDs in queer and hip-hop studies were possible. These were theories we had to learn, sometimes in the midst of creating them. I mean this literally. In 1998, I was home finishing the final edits on the book that would birth hip-hop feminism. And yes, I was listening to Lauryn.

Looking back, we were already barreling toward the shades of gray that millennials and the iGeneration see their world in. The shift from black and white was unsettling, full of conflicts and even more contradictions. For example, ’90s blackness still had deep investments in respectability politics and often found itself in conflict with hip hop’s penchant for valorizing the hood. At the same time, they were middle- and upper-class kids and rappers claiming ghetto authenticity, even if they had to lie about it. Journalist Akiba Solomon, who had just started her job as an assistant editor at The Source magazine when Miseducation dropped, recalls Lauryn being one of the few middle-class rappers who was actually honest about it. “Remember that line in ‘That Thing,’ ‘Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem’? It was one of my favorites,’?” said Solomon. “Nowadays people would dismiss that as ‘She’s being a Hotep’ and indulging in the politics of respectability or whatever, but back then it was really helpful for me to hear a woman say that—especially a woman like Lauryn who was undoubtedly from the culture and loved the culture but was making a commentary on girls ‘acting hard.’ It was the era of the gangsta bitch,” Solomon explained, “and a lot of girls in hip hop identified with this hypermasculine idea of ‘soldiering.’ Kim and Foxy were the hot female rappers and they were rhyming about carrying drugs in your cooch on a Greyhound. Well, that was interesting imagery, but it didn’t represent my experiences. Lauryn was a middle-class girl from suburban New Jersey who talked about class—working and middle—in her lyrics. For somebody like her to talk about the fullness of black experience was important and brave because at the time, there was a whole swath of people in hip hop pretending that they weren’t middle class. Middle-class people were trying to hustle backward, and hood people were trying to appear wealthy. It was a weird and I would argue, self-destructive, take. Black people, and black women in particular, have multiple sides. Even the so-called hoodest of us also have middle-class concerns. Lauryn’s lyric felt like air to me. The whole album did.”

Similarly, the purists were obsessed with authenticity and called out the sellouts. The backpackers lamented they didn’t see the same kinds of commercial success as the hard core.

And everybody wanted a magazine cover. In response, the decade seemed to organize itself by binaries and chose its camps accordingly. Everything seemed to be evaluated by markers of versus back then: East Coast vs. West Coast, positive vs. negative, gay vs. straight, hoes vs. queens. Even the Fugees’s success was partially due to the ways they were positioned as the positive alternative to the violence that claimed Biggie and Pac’s lives. Just like Lauryn’s pedestal was partially built on a distinct fear and loathing for Kim and Foxy’s hypersexuality. This was a practice that, to her credit, dream hampton knew we would ultimately have to undo. “I tried to get at it, even back then, in a review I wrote about Digable Planets,” she laments. “I mean, what made us think that the person who was listening to Arrested Development wasn’t also the same person who was listening to Ice Cube?”

I feel myself cutting the goddaughter some slack. The twenty years between us is the critical difference between the generation that grew up with hip hop as a given and the one that watched it move from subculture to center. And it wasn’t just the music. With a hustler’s spirit inscribed deep within its DNA, hip hop made new lanes and created new career possibilities. In turn, we got real carpe diem with our shit, dubbed ourselves the culture’s keepers, and became its deejays, producers, music executives, writers, editors, publishers, entrepreneurs, directors, stylists, and designers. We were arrogant, opinionated, and indebted because hip hop changed our lives. I’m sure this made us judge-y as shit.

Besides, anyone who’s ever listened to “Doo Wop (That Thing)” knows that Lauryn could be judge-y. Wrapped within the sweetness of its Motown-inspired melodies lies a lyrical smackdown of certain black girl aesthetics that heads are still in their feelings about. “Yup,” laughs deejay Lynnée Denise, who admits to being “one of those gay women who was in love with her. That deep raspy voice and the way she would flip her looks between masculine hip-hop gear and then something really femme made me feel like Lauryn was challenging gender binaries early. But then she hit me with that.” It was a conservative position on “fakeness vs. authenticity” that Lynnée felt she couldn’t afford. “I’m sure Lauryn grew up with black women in Jersey who shaped her fashion sense—women who were wearing fake nails and weaves. Besides, she had fake locs.”

(Wait. What?)

Lyrically she is guilty as charged, but the video for “Doo Wop (That Thing)” reveals a trickster’s play, and the didactic morphs into a delicious dualism. “It’s interesting to revisit it twenty years later,” says Lynnée. “The split screen has new meaning. I associate it with her being a Gemini and her natural understanding of the power of dualism. Lauryn as rapper/singer, artist/scholar. There’s a darkness to it that speaks afro-futurism, a kind of time travel and speculative re-telling of black folk’s history in New York City in the last century. All the elements of us are there. She catches the spirit of NYC summer community gatherings. She’s gesturing toward Brooklyn, home of the block party, or maybe NYC black life as a whole.”

There’s the obvious dualism of the two time periods, of course, the ’90s vs. the ’60s. It’s a split screen but the two eras aren’t equally weighted. Its aesthetic has more in common with 1970s cinematography—gritty with muted colors that still manage to pay acute attention to the range of tonality and texture in black skin—much more akin to old-school black and white than ’90s music-video cinematography. It was the height of ghetto fabulousness, in a time when hip hop was invested in the cache of being able to show the world that blackness could move seamlessly in and out of multiple worlds—from the Hamptons to the hood—and using shinier, big budget optics to do it. The visual choices in “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (much more cinematographer Bradford Young than director Hype Williams) however, seem to be a subtle rejection of that. Even the sartorial choices it makes for the ’60s—brothers are dressed in sharp, clean suits and brims (hey, Mos Def, hey) and the women are in Jackie O tea-length, A-line dresses—is a veneration of the past that even the present seems captured by.

And then here comes Lauryn, slaying in double time and flipping her own respectability politics on its head. On the right side of the screen she’s that L-Boogie effortless sexy that became her trademark: wedge-heeled platforms, thigh-high miniskirt with a matching spaghetti-strapped tee topped with an oversize denim shirt—one that she selectively shimmies out of to reveal gorgeous chocolate shoulders and accompanying décolleté. On the left side she’s serving us ’60s girl-group perfection in a zebra print swing coat and matching trapeze dress and—wait for it—a flawless swoop bang beehive. Simultaneously reserving the right to indict hair weaves and fake hair while wearing a straight wig. “She’s a shape-shifter,” Lynnée reminds me. “Much like the science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s character Anyanwu, and she wears each shape masterfully well.”

She’s right. Dismissing Lauryn here as purely judge-y and hypocritical is too flat of a read. When Hill rhymed that she was only human she was advocating for her right to be complicated and beautifully contradictory—and ours too, whether she realized it or not. “It’s like this,” says Dr. Yaba Blay, scholar, image activist and creator of the popular web series #ProfessionalBlackGirl. “What made that video so powerful was her saying I can be both of these seemingly contradictory things and they’re both real. I can criticize it and still rock it. The video also gives us these images of the beauty salon and the barbershop, which are traditionally safe spaces for us to have these kinds of conversations. Lauryn was moving us away from those harsh spaces of judgment and closer to where we are now, which is more ‘I know it’s a problem but that don’t mean I don’t like it. Can we talk about it?’ It’s very similar to the work you do in Chickenheads: when it [came] out the following year and you told us you needed ‘a feminism that fucked with the grays.’ It’s that moment in the late ’90s when [we] get that shift and we’re being encouraged to see ourselves as dynamic, fluid human beings that are both/and, not either/or.”

Both, Goddaughter. Judge-y and liberatory.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Joan Morgan has written extensively about gender issues and music for THE VILLAGE VOICE, THE NEW YORK TIMES and was a staff writer for VIBE magazine. She is currently a contributing editor for ESSENCE.

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  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 4, 2022)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501195266

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