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Expressing Complicated Love for Lauryn Hill as an Iconic Album Turns 20

Even if the layers of the song and the video complicate a glib reading of Hill’s intentions, Morgan concedes that a good deal of what a regal Hill says bears a distinct resemblance to respectability politics. “For many fans,” Morgan writes, “Lauryn was seen as the desirable antidote to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown’s hypersexuality.” (It was no small irony, then, when an unmarried Hill’s pregnancies at the height of her career drew the unforgiving judgment of women who had always thought of her as a middle-class good girl from New Jersey, Morgan says, and were “less than enthused.”)

In the two decades since “Miseducation,” Hill has released a live album (the polarizing “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0”) and the jittery single “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix),” which was critically hammered for some baffling abstractions (“Transference, projections / Like Cartesian images”) and lines that sounded problematic, to say the least (“Quick scams and drag queens / Real life’s been blasphemed”). Hill said she had to rush the single out “by virtue of the impending legal deadline” — that deadline presumably related to the three months she was about to spend in prison for failing to pay income taxes.

But she still tours, and she still commands an authoritative place in a crowded cultural imagination. The rapper Drake sampled Hill’s “Ex-Factor” in “Nice for What,” his recent paean to women’s empowerment, speeding up Hill’s languid contralto into a cute, bouncy refrain. Hill then covered Drake’s track at one of her shows, replacing his lyrics with her own: “So stop acting like you didn’t grow up singing my songs.”

I suspect that Morgan would approve of this exchange between the stars. Her philosophy seems to be, the more voices the better; “She Begat This” is thick with competing opinions, as well as chunks of dialogue. Morgan is such a fluid and candid writer that I often wanted to hear more from her. But reflecting on “Chickenheads” in an afterword to a new edition, she describes how she modeled her own method on hip-hop, which has long pursued something more “faulty, contradictory, messy” than a lone, exacting voice would allow.

“Truth,” she wrote in that book, “is what happens when your cumulative voices fill in the breaks, provide the remixes and rework the chorus.” It feels like the right approach to an artist like Hill; her iconic album might be 20 years old, but our understanding of it is still a work in progress.

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