When I used to listen to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill all the time, I would take her lyrics as a challenge. The album was a set of protest songs, sort of, and Ms. Hill was the cute Greenpeace volunteer standing up the block saying "Hi, want to end oppression?" before I was close enough to see the whites of her eyes. I liked having her voice in my ears, and I felt like I had to prove to her that I wasn't part of her problems.
This was back when everyone thought she'd really said that line about how she'd rather see her children die than have white people buy her records. I knew she'd be nasty; I just wanted her to know I was all right. She'd swing at me, and I'd stand there and take it until she got tired. When I played her songs at the end of a long day, timed so they'd finish when I got back to my doorstep, I'd wonder if she liked me better on account of what I'd been up to. But I resented her for being so concerned.
As far as imaginary relationships go, this one had a lot of ups and downs. At first, she had a really convincing way of saying "reciprocity" when she was demanding it from a negligent man. Sometimes, when I wasn't treating a girl well enough, I'd worry that she was pronouncing it that way in her head. But then after I heard that line about a guy "more concerned with his rims and his Timbs than his women," I took it upon myself to buy some Timberlands. I wanted to make her like me, and leave dirty footprints while I did it.
My favorite of hers was the ballad, "Tell Him," the last song on the album. I try not to brag about that, since it's such an over-sincere, heart-on-the-table, girls-record-covers-on-YouTube sort of song, but I wasn't really even interested in those things in the first place. I just liked the ending.
She starts out talking about how she's got to "suffer" and "endure" for some guy, and her state only gets worse: "I know I'm imperfect and not without sin, but now that I'm older all childish things end." For how authoritative she's been the whole record, it's admitting a lot when she starts talking like a kid who just moved up to the adult potty. I mean, you know, an eloquent, biblical kid. But anyway, not Ms. "I'd Rather See My Children Die" Hill. When I first heard it, I felt like I'd finally gotten on her good side. Maybe I have a complex, or something, but I imagined she was singing it to me. In fact, I sometimes imagined I was singing it to myself, so nevermind.
Anyway, there I was, hearing it for the first time, appreciating the more vulnerable version of this angry girl, when suddenly I got hit with the punchline. The very last line of the last verse reads, "nothing compared to the love that was shown when our lives were spared."
I went through a mental list of Schindlers and Morpheuses and realized she was talking about Jesus. She wasn't singing to me, or 'him,' or whatever, but to God. That meant she wasn't opening up to me; she was asking God for the power to get even angrier. For a minute, I felt cheated. But then I decided she was probably just playing games with me. And that I had to try harder to beat her.
The arguments continued off and on for years. Only now do I realize she was bad for me.