Ex Factor – Lauryn Hill
Guilty pleasure (noun)
Something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.
That’s according to everyone’s favourite recyclopaedia, Wikipedia.
We’re all bound to have them, if only because perceptions of ‘high regard’ are relative to our own standards and those of the peeps around us.
My own standards are ‘above average yet prone to significant fluctuation’ and as a 35 year old gay white man, what society expect of me varies depending on who you ask. As a result, my list of guilty pleasures is a loooong one. I’m a living indulgent example of Wikipedia’s definition across all three categories (and more). Case(s) in point, as follows.
Exhibit A: TV shows. I once watched two whole seasons of Dance Moms in one weekend. It was an extended four day weekend over Easter, sure, but a gluttonous achievement in TV nonetheless
Exhibit B: Music. I do love to indulge my sweet tooth with some sugary pop treats in amongst my broadly more nutritious diet of music. Kesha’s Tik Tok and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream will go down as two of history’s greatest songs in my official biography. In case you end up reading the unofficial one, it’s probably only 80% true.
Exhibit C: Movies. I still watch Sleeping with Enemy, Fear or Save the Last Dance anytime they are on TV. They are somehow even more pleasurable with the increased guilt I feel as a more wordly adult who is now subject to higher standards. You’ve Got Mail is still probably the best rom-com of all time. But perhaps my most guilty, greatest pleasure is Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
The film has a 7% favourable score on Rotten Tomatoes. And to think, I was checking to see if if had won any Oscars. Therein lies the guilt component. But the pleasure, oh the pleasure! Of course, there’s the final performance scene where the kids of St. Francis’ disrobe and deliver the medley of all medleys.
However, its long-lasting legacy and actually credible peak comes mid-way through. Two student sit at the piano and share their struggles to realise their dream of singing. The song was His Eye is on the Sparrow. The actresses playing the two school students were Tanya Blount and none other than a young Lauryn Hill. It’s an incredible musical moment, just (re)watch it now.
I remember thinking when I saw it ‘this girl must be famous’. Unfortunately back then there was no internet for me to do my research and it also meant there was nowhere I could find her contact details and sign her to my imaginary music label ran from my parents’ couch in small town country Australia.
As a result I had to earn my teenage spending money scanning groceries at a supermarket. When I first started the radio was our – and our customers’ – musical accompaniment. One day a song came on called Killing Me Softly. It was by Fugees and I became immediately obsessed with it. Then when I saw the music video I realised it was that same actor-playing-troubled-girl-at-the-piano (to which I said “welcome back Rita! La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la”).
FINALLY, it had happened. Someone (else) had discovered her. Fugees then became a big part of me exploring and developing my eventual love of hip hop (check out Nappy Heads, Vocab, How Many Mics in case you want some extra home work this week).
A couple of years later Lauryn Hill released her first solo single – Doo Wop (That Thing).
For my first year of university I made the medium-ish move from that small-ish town to the big-ish city of Melbourne. I was basically Violet Stanford from Coyote Ugly, except when I danced on bars I was never paid for it.
In honour of my ‘big’ move, I got my first car. It was a 1988 Mitsubishi Sigma and was a product of its generation coming armed with a tape deck and radio.
The beauty of cassette tapes back in 1999 was that you could still buy them, and cheap. So, to pump up my car’s jams, I bought my first cassette tape in about 8 years – the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. To say it was on high rotation is an understatement. It was literally the only thing that played in my car for six months.
If Fugees fostered my education and love of hip hop, Lauryn Hill and her Miseducation became my masters for all things hip-hop, neo-soul and R&B and has had a profound effect on my musical journey and ultimate taste.
Like many of my most influential albums it challenged my understanding of what ‘likeable’ music could sound like and introduced me to a whole new world.
Doo Wop (That Thing) helped me build my budding rap skills, To Zion nourished my soul with some international flavour thanks to Carlos Santana’s Spanish-tinged spine-tingling guitar work. I Used to Love Him and Nothing Even Matters introduced me to Mary J Blige and D’Angelo, properly and respectively. The whole album was an introduction and a thesis all in one.
Perhaps this album’s most special moment is track number 3: the ex-ceptional Ex Factor. Right from the get-go this song packs the smoothest of punches – after all, it’s allegedly an anti-ode to her former Fugee band mate/ current long-time foe, Wyclef Jean (as is track 1: Lost Ones). Despite its nay-saying lyrics the song lifts you up. It’s a funny thing how this happens in music. My goose bumps do a synchronised dance routine to the magical sprinkling of instruments in the intro and they basically remain there for the full five and a half minutes. The song is defeatist about the relationship but ultimately powerful in its decisiveness.
I still listen to this album on the regular. Each song has come to mean something a little different and even more sincere with, ahem, all this life experience behind (and in front of) me.
It still remains the pinnacle of Lauryn Hill’s career. Since then, there has been one other MTV Unplugged album (for the record, I liked it), what feels like 100 false starts, disappointing concert performances, a jail sentence and a presumed/ likely mental breakdown or two.
Finally, it looks like Lauryn Hill might be back if this recent performance at Austin City Limits is any indication. She is absolutely on fire.
Kanye West once rapped “Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion, I wish her heart still was in rhymin'”. It’s basically how millions of us felt. Watching this performance her voice may not soar quite as high as it once did but her heart (and head) definitely looks – and more importantly feels – in it for the first time since the Miseducation.
Sure, I didn’t need Sister Act 2. I would have found Lauryn Hill anyway. But the story would feel less complete. In a way I grew up with Lauryn Hill, from the very beginning. So, if Sister Act 2 makes me guilty, I say “as charged your honours”.