This piece is part of our ongoing coverage of Rolling Stone’s newly updated 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill topped H.E.R.’s personal ballot and landed at number 10 on the overall list. Here, H.E.R. reflects on how the album helped her chart a course for her own career. (Go here to read the complete list of 500 Greatest Albums voters and learn more about how the current ranking was assembled.)
In 1998, Lauryn Hill was already coming off immense success with her group the Fugees. Her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — still, to this day, her only studio album — took the 23-year-old singer-songwriter to meteoric heights. Upon its release, Miseducation became a critical and commercial smash.
On the 2020 update of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Hill’s debut made a remarkable leap to the top 10, having previously sat at 312. One of the voters who ranked it highly was H.E.R., a Grammy-winning rising star who placed Miseducation at number one. Here, H.E.R. explains how she put her ballot together and why Miseducation has been so formative in her life and art.
How did you put together your ballot?
Man, I just had to pick. I had to pick the ones that were obviously closest to me, the ones that are attached to memories. That’s kind of how I picked them. Those memories and my music are really connected. My music comes from personal experience. I hear one of my songs and I’m not sick of it — even though it’s out and I perform it a lot — because it reminds me of a certain time in my life. I love to reminisce. So that’s how I chose the albums on there: that connection as a consumer, as a listener, not even just as a musician.
Was Miseducation an easy top pick for you?
It wasn’t easy. There’s so many albums, and I’ve gone through phases as I’ve grown up. There are so many albums I consider my favorite, and my favorite songs of all time come from different albums. This album [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] specifically had to be my number one as far as musically what I thought is one of the best and my favorite.
Do you remember the first time you heard this album?
It came out literally a year after I was born, and I used to hear my mom and dad playing it. I liked the songs and I would sing along, but I didn’t understand it until I got a little bit older. I’ve heard it so many times, from the time I was a baby until the time I got older. I knew the songs but I didn’t know how I knew the songs. I remember it just being one of those albums I would hear and couldn’t fully grasp until I became a teenager.
Were you immediately in love with the album from an early age or did that come later?
It was a slow progression because there were certain songs that I felt like I could relate to. My first favorite song that helped me understand the musicality of the album was “Nothing Even Matters.” I’m also a D’Angelo fan. Of course, songs like “Ex-Factor” lyrically was like, “whoa, who even says this?” It really allowed me to make personal music.
As you yourself grew as a musician and songwriter, how did you start to hear this album in a new light?
The thing about music, there’s this idea that you just need a one hit single. You need a Number One at radio or big streaming numbers. Literally every single song on that album was special. The body of work. People don’t really focus on their bodies of work as much as they used to. I want people to bring that back, the quality of an actual project. You couldn’t say that one song was bad on [Miseducation]. You could say that you liked one more, that one was your favorite. Everybody had a different favorite. That’s how you know an album is great: when everybody has a different favorite song on the album. It’s not just one song that stands out. Every single song stood out. That’s what I strive for when creating my own album. Literally no skips! You can listen to that album front to back and there’s something for everybody. It’s special. There’s not that many people who could do that.
Did you learn any of the songs on the guitar when you were younger?
Absolutely. I love to cover “Ex-Factor.” “To Zion” is one of my favorites to play. The whole album, I’ve attempted to do my own version of in my room, to myself.
How do you define the legacy of this album overall?
It’s timeless. Nobody’s complaining about “Where’s the next one? Where’s the next one?” Because we’re still playing this one over and over. We never get tired of it. There’s no way you can get tired of this album. That’s what makes it so special. I wish we had another one, but there will never be an album that’s as good as Miseducation. That will always be its own thing. You can try to beat it. You can try to make another one. That’s what’s so cool about this album: it is what it is and it is what it’s always gonna be. Long after we’re gone, people will still be listening to those records and covering them and interpolating them.