My favourite album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Our writers are picking their favourite albums. Here, Rebecca Nicholson recalls getting a miseducation from Lauryn Hill

In 1998, I took The Craft soundtrack to my local record shop and part-exchanged it for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I knew the Fugees' big hits from my cassette-single years and had already fallen in love with Lauryn Hill's voice – aggressive when she rapped through Ready or Not, tender on that huge, breakout Roberta Flack cover. Plus, I'd recently seen the sadly unappreciated film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, in which she plays a young singer trying to make a go of it. Not the most likely path to musical enlightenment, but I couldn't take my eyes off her.

I've been listening to this album for 13 years, but the ways in which it matters to me have changed for every one of them. It was the first hip-hop album I'd heard by a woman, and I loved that she was covering female experiences just beyond my years. It let me daydream about a future. Back then I held a torch for the girls who smoked at the bus stop, who wore their sluttiness like a badge of honour. I wanted to be like them. But on Doo Wop (That Thing), here was Hill offering another side to the story, telling women that self-respect mattered ("don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem baby girl"), slanting the same message to address the boys ("how you gon' win when you ain't right within?"). I didn't know if I agreed with her, but I wanted to be in that position, to have embraced promiscuity and, after careful consideration, changed my mind. I was a melodramatic teenager and she sounded like a big sister.

As I got older, I stuck with it. I started to appreciate the harder edges of Lost Ones and Superstar. Lauryn might have been rapping about falling out with the other Fugees, but it didn't matter. She was a tough girl, and that aggression and confidence amazed me. The hip-hop canon is shot through with male rage; female anger is harder to come by. I love that this isn't a "sexy" record, which was often the default setting for a female rapper, particularly in the 90s. It doesn't need to be, because it's confident in its intelligence.

That said, what seems to have lasted beyond the daydreams, and beyond the broader politics, is its inward, personal, emotional reach. Earlier this year, the typically painful, stuttering break-up of a long relationship made Ex Factor almost unbearable to listen to, dealing, as it does, with a drawn-out mess of a couple in meltdown. It's accusatory, resigned and confused. The refrain: "You said you'd die for me … why won't you live for me?" cuts like a knife. I Used to Love Him, the duet with Mary J Blige, whose vocals drop in regally yet never dominate, also struck a chord; together, they sing of how love can consume you completely, unhealthily, until it's hard to see anything outside of it, no matter how bad it gets.

Of course, by the end of that song, Mary and Lauryn decide to leave it in God's hands. And really, now, that's what I find most extraordinary about this album. For the most part, its themes have turned out to be a million miles from anything I can relate to. Thirteen years after I first heard it, I've never had children, I don't believe in God, I didn't get screwed over in the Fugees, and me and Wyclef Jean never did manage to make a go of it. But still I come back to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and still it throws up something new.

• You can write your own review of this record on our brand new album pages: once you're signed into the Guardian website, visit the album's dedicated page.

Or you could simply star rate it, or add it to one of your album lists. There are more than 3m new pages for you to explore as well as 600,000-plus artists' pages – so simply find their albums and get to work …


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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