LAURYN HILL NEVER DID MAKE IT back to Columbia University; her formal education was put on hold when she and her Fugees band mates cut The Score, changed the summer of '96 and sold 17 million records worldwide. After the band won two Grammys, Hill embarked on an ambitious course of independent study, giving birth to Bob Marley's grandson (with Rohan Marley), writing a song for Aretha Franklin and taking a break from Fugee mates Wyclef Jean and Pras. Now Hill, 23, who's pregnant again, presents the term's final project, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a soulful solo debut that's more than a dissertation — it's one of the most personal, provocative R&B narratives of the decade.
Do you think the album's title will throw people off?
It's supposed to throw people off. It's not anything that my teachers should take offense to, because it's not really about me being miseducated. It's more about me finding myself. I think we receive lots of information that's supposed to be good for everyone, but we're all unique.
What have you had to figure out?
I make mistakes. I've had my heart broken. I'm not embarrassed to expose myself in the sense that I'm human. I'm not embarrassed to tell someone how happy I was when I had my child, or how conflicted I was, or how much I love God. I don't feel like I have to put up a front to the people who want to hear my music.
Did you cry while you were making this album?
Wow. Um, the album came after so much hurt that by the time I had done these tunes, I'd gotten out all my tears.
People expected a hip-hop album from you.
I think it's an honest album. When I think of honest music, I think of soul. Music's more technical now; it strives for perfection. Soul music strives for the heart.
There's some tension on "Lost Ones." Is that song about Wyclef?
That's just people trying to start controversy. In any group you're going to have different dynamics. We have real relationships, and when you have that you're going to have issues. You have to remember, I've been with these guys every day for six or seven years.
What was it like writing a song for Aretha Franklin?
It's amazing to have Aretha singing words that you wrote. You wanna hear something funny? When I recorded with her in Detroit, I went into the vocal booth after she came out, and it smelled like church, like paper fans with wooden sticks. I'm not kidding. Like it came out of her pores.
How has motherhood changed you?
Having a child puts everything back in perspective. You start to realize what's important. If I stopped enjoying this business, I could quit. I never want the industry to drive me; I want to drive it. I want to be a part of a new class of artists who don't have to fall apart to be dope. I'd rather not chronicle my demise. When you're young and everything dramatic is exciting, you start to believe that you have to suffer to be an artist. I've graduated from that school.
The song "Superstar" is very critical of the quality of hip-hop and R&B.
Once I had my child, I was forced to sit still. Had I not sat still, maybe I would have been caught up in the whirlwind, too. But because I was on the outside, I could see just how materialistic the industry was.... It frustrated me that it had nothing to do with talent and musical merit. MCs didn't have to write their rhymes; singers didn't really have to be able to sing. I just felt like the world of music was upside down.
But you have hope?
One of the things that keeps me excited about hip-hop is that no matter what's out there on the airwaves blowing up, there's some kid in a basement somewhere, developing that new style, just waiting to be discovered. Hip-hop has a way of purging itself. Right now we're in kind of a holding pattern, waiting for that next kid, that next wave.