Is Lauryn Hill’s Legacy Still Assured?

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Lauryn Hill performing The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in concert at Madison Square Garden in 1999.

At the MTV Video Music Awards this past Monday, Cardi B gave an acceptance speech for her Best New Artist award that channeled an artist she’d sampled earlier that year: “I am so happy to receive this award. A couple of months ago a lot of people were saying, ‘You know you’re gambling your career, you’re about to have a baby. What are you doing?’”

The remark echoed sentiments Lauryn Hill made 20 years ago on “To Zion,” a song from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her only solo studio album and magnum opus. Hill describes her son’s conception as arising out of a pressurized situation: “Woe this crazy circumstance / I knew his life deserved a chance / but everybody told me to be smart / ‘Look at your career,’ they said / ‘Lauryn, baby, use your head’ / But instead I chose to use my heart.”

In the present, at the end of that speech, Cardi used both her heart and her magnanimous voice to kill two birds with one okurrr: She thanked her fans for their unyielding love and support and also returned a jab at Nicki Minaj, the other mega-successful woman rapper at the ceremony, who was perceived to have been passive-aggressively swiping at Cardi the previous week and during her own performance that night. This nascent rap beef between hip-hop’s preeminent women’s voices was yet another unexpected echo to Hill, the first mega-successful solo woman rapper, whose Miseducation turns 20 this week.

In many ways, the album anticipated a few of the commercial and ideological foundations of contemporary pop culture. That album’s incredible success, which included record-breaking first-week sales of 423,000 copies (it’s reported to have sold more than 19 million copies worldwide), five Grammys, and a host of other honorifics, helped pave the way for Cardi and Nicki Minaj, whose albums Invasion of Privacy and Queen respectively debuted at No. 1 and No. 2 on Billboard’s charts. That success and subsequent absence unintentionally cemented a growing binary among women in rap, out of which they continue to fight to be the genre’s One and Only. Hill’s pithy Miseducation quotables preceded Drake’s Instagram caption–ready lyrics. Her strident musings on the fickle fame cycle, which Hill warned about on the album as well as her frequent big-ups to Nina Simone, presaged discussions of how the industry discards and dishonors black women musical geniuses.

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Hill at the 1999 Grammy Awards.

That last thing is interesting to consider, given how Hill’s own musical genius on that album is so evident. In 2017, NPR music dubbed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill the second greatest album of all time made by a woman. This year has served as an extended celebration of that album. As has been widely cataloged, both Cardi B and Drake sampled from the album’s second single “Ex-Factor” earlier this year, Cardi in “Be Careful,” and Drake in “Nice for What.” Hill has done her own celebrating. Beginning in July, Hill launched a 20-year anniversary tour. At the beginning of August, writer and critic Joan Morgan released She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a hybrid memoir and analysis of the album. In a review of Hill’s chaotic and sped-up rendition of Miseducation at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, which is her usual way of performing that album these days, writer Tom Breihan wrote that she “played chicken with the entire concept of time, and won.”

In the wake of that set, it’s hard to parse her present failures. The combined weight of the personal and professional toll of the three-month prison term Hill served for tax evasion in 2013; a history of being hours-late to shows; a besmirched legacy over not properly crediting Miseducation producers; and now further allegations of her compromised professionalism, as the musician Robert Glasper recently alleged she threatened not to pay him and other live musicians that she’d hired for gigs, suggest a kind of creative and professional malaise. To say that Hill’s reputation has suffered is an understatement. Just weeks after she’d started the Miseducation anniversary tour in July, Hill announced she was canceling or postponing the remainder of the tour dates due to “unforeseen production issues.”

The years immediately following Miseducation’s release would bring the critically divisive Unplugged album and Hill’s rebuke of the Catholic Church over the longstanding child sexual abuse scandal after the Vatican invited her to perform in 2003. In a 2006 interview with Essence magazine Morgan, who interviewed Hill, called the musician’s antics “self-sabotage.” If her behavior after the album’s release was indeed self-sabotage, Miseducation is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a map of where she would go. The Miseducation is a title that predicts a failure to understand. If Hill is our generations’s Nina Simone, as Morgan and several others suggest in She Begat This, then The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was partly about the way we misunderstood her. While Miseducation is Hill’s “thesis,” as she indicated on “Final Hour,” it’s also her crusade, her Joseph Campbell–esque hero’s quest, which necessarily involves physical escape from one’s community in order to accomplish a task.

In fact, Miseducation establishes Hill as more than just a generic mythic figure; the comparisons she makes between herself and Jesus throughout the album suggest a more explicitly religious image. This self-identification manifested as both self-aggrandizing and shuttering away. On the album, Hill constructed an ego, one that by the time she shot the music videos for its singles she was already tearing down. The ellipses you find in Miseducation intimate an erasure, self-imposed, that would come to define Hill’s career.

Hayley Madden / Redferns

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released when Hill was just 23 years old, is a declaration of independence in the vein of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Janet Jackson’s Control and Janet albums. It, to use Morgan’s phrasing, begat Solange’s A Seat at the Table and a host of other emancipatory records. Miseducation is a secular album with ecclesiastic tendencies anticipated by both Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye’s catalogs. In that respect, it presaged D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn, Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book.

The album is also emancipatory because it was the result of Hill’s decision to leave her romantic relationship (she ended an affair with her married bandmate Wyclef Jean) and the Fugees, the rap group that made her famous. Hill was out to upstage Jean and stake a claim for herself as a maestro rapper-singer-producer. As Touré notes in a 2003 Rolling Stone essay about Hill, “After The Score, many perceived Wyclef Jean as the group’s musical genius. Hill began plotting an album of her own that would change that.”

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Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michél of Fugees in 1993.

Out of this context, Hill went from a Fugee to a refugee. The album’s themes attest to this disappearing act, and a desire to get free. Buoyed by the ineffable mystery of what exactly “That Thing” is, Miseducation is a document of a woman who does not want to be pinned down. The record mixes genres, ranging from reggae to ska to hip-hop to doo-wop to gospel, as if she’s trying to contain multiple strains of black music in the record’s 16 tracks. Indeed, she told Touré in a 1999 Rolling Stone profile that she wanted to craft songs that had “the integrity of reggae and the knock of hip-hop and the instrumentation of classic soul.” This choice also suggests she was trying to musically embody elusiveness; as noted DJ and music historian Lynneé Denise told Joan Morgan, Hill was a “shape-shifter” on the album. One way Hill morphs is by visually establishing a new identity; Miseducation’s cover — which swapped The Score’s Blaxploitation-era photorealism with a drawing that’s reminiscent of both Burnin’, her father-in-law Bob Marley’s album with the Wailers, and the famous Che Guevara sketch you find on T-shirts and dorm posters — is the image of an icon, not a real person. That move helped to signal her shift from recording artist to “conscious” paragon. And yet her determination to flee all the pressures of her celebrity life came via a form of self-mythologizing that would ironically vaunt her above her peers and crystallize an image she hated.

As much as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is about Hill’s fully realized arrival as a solo artist, it’s also, from the very first interlude, immediately about her retreat. In the album’s introduction, a skit in which a teacher takes roll call in the first of a series of Socratic discussions of love, Hill’s voice is notably absent. Hill’s going ghost from the lesson is often read in the context of her having learned of love the hard way, through experience, not studying in the safe confines of a classroom, as she explained shortly after the album’s release. It’s hard to think of the interludes — the album’s thematic spine — in just this one way, without considering what happened before and after the album. Hill’s playing hooky from the classroom parallels her disappearance in the world outside of it. The teacher’s confused “Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill?” is not unlike the bewildered questioning of concertgoers and awards show producers pondering Hill’s tardiness or failure to show altogether, both of which would happen later.

Ruffhouse Records / Columbia Records

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released on Aug. 25, 1998.

From the “Intro,” which establishes her absence, Hill moves to “Lost Ones,” a bombastic hand grenade of a song that is clearly aimed at Jean. On the track Hill is at her fiercest, oscillating between rage, vague Biblical-sounding pronouncements of destruction, and indictments of the recording industry: “My emancipation don’t fit your equation / I was on the humble, you on every station / Some want to play young Lauryn like she dumb / but remember not a game new under the sun.” As an album opener, it establishes the album’s themes over a mighty mix of hip-hop and dub production. Between interstitial classroom skits, Hill flows between Christian paeans, prophetic gloom-and-doom proclamations, a critique of the music business, laments to lost potential, and a few love songs. The scope is ambitious, if not slightly shambolic.

Upon revisiting, it’s astounding how heavily Hill leans into gospel themes on the album. On “I Used to Love Him,” featuring Mary J. Blige, Hill sings of a man who “dulled [her] senses and blurred [her] sight.” By the end of the song, Hill goes from confessing her romantic missteps to ceding control of her life to God. “Final Hour” and “Forgive Them Father” hit upon these religious themes more directly, without wrapping them in metaphor. Singles “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Ex-Factor,” and “Everything Is Everything” do a decent job of making Hill’s self-righteousness both palatable and danceable.

On The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the artist was undergoing a spiritual transformation. “I had gone through a lot, you know, a huge spiritual and emotional battle prior to the creation of that album,” she said in this 2000 interview for the nonprofit American Academy of Achievement. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a bardo, a liminal space between artistic death and rebirth: It’s a first and (so far) final studio album; it’s the portrait of a young artist on the cusp of adulthood; it’s the testament of a young believer torn between letting God take over and exercising her free will; it’s an album informed by a breakup and a new romance; it’s a bridge between many musical styles. It’s the record of a person who wants to be simultaneously above and within her peer group (would a person who assumed it was a given say “Lauryn is only human”?) In the video for “Doo Wop (That Thing),” where that line comes from, Hill establishes a picture of herself, one antithetical to “hair weaves like Europeans” and “fake nails done by Koreans” and undercuts it by rocking a ’60s wig on one side of the video’s split screen, visually representing the album’s duality.

If Miseducation teased out the tension between Hill’s status as a pop culture God and interest in being a humbler, more complex figure, the experimental Unplugged No 2.0 album would dispel any of that tension, bringing the artist firmly back to earth. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau said the album was in the running to be the “worst album ever released by an artist of substance.” It was similarly panned by other outlets. Writing for the New York Times, Kelefa Sanneh couched his criticism in dialectical terms: “These discs test the limits of the relationship between the star and her fans, and extreme humility becomes indistinguishable from its opposite.” If Unplugged failed, it’s partially because that precise gray area Miseducation laid out proved too difficult for fans to stay interested in. By then, she was already gone.

New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

Out of the Miseducation-era L-Boogie came Ms. Hill, the moniker she adopted because, as she explained to Morgan in Essence in 2006, “I’m Ms. Hill because I know I’m a wise woman. That is the respect I deserve.” In Ms. Hill, the musician’s Miseducation-era trademark Pan African glam-bohemian look was replaced by a more unexpected package: In subsequent fashion spreads, red carpet appearances, and award show performances, Hill sported a more mainstream glamorous image that incorporated relaxed natural hair or the weaves she critiqued in “Doo Wop (That Thing).” She was clearly after a more complicated self-image than she, or we, had allowed her to have before.

According to Touré’s Rolling Stone piece, several of Hill’s close friends described her as unhappy, paralyzed by fame and her own stifling perfectionism. One friend told Touré in 2003, 5 years after Miseducation’s release:

I think Lauryn grew to despise who Lauryn Hill was. Not that she despised herself as a human being, but she despised the manufactured international-superstar magazine cover girl who wasn’t able to go out of the house looking a little tattered on a given day. Because Lauryn is such a perfectionist, she always sought to give the fans what they wanted, so a simple run to the grocery store had to have the right heels and jeans. Artists are a lot more calculating than the public sometimes knows. It don’t happen by accident that the jeans fall the right way, the hat is cocked to the side just so. All of that stuff is thought about, and Lauryn put a lot of pressure on herself after all that success. And then one day she said, “Fuck it.”

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Hill performing on MTV Unplugged in 2001.

In She Begat This, the writer and filmmaker dream hampton explains fans’ impulse to venerate artists who vanished before their time: “Lauryn also disappeared, and I think there’s a tendency to mythologize people who are gone too soon. We saw that with Biggie and Tupac. Lauryn was in her prime. It would be like Beyoncé disappearing after she had Blue Ivy. When you disappear, people tend to romanticize who you are and what you can do.” While hampton doesn’t suggest Hill’s disappearance was intentional or calculated, she does speak to the implications of that kind of absence, whether or not it comes about by death or self-imposed exile.

Hill hinted at this reasoning in Essence, saying, “I don’t think I ever handled celebrity. For a period of time I had to step away entirely […] One of my hopes for artists today is that they don’t get trapped in images that don’t really reflect who they are. Everybody is sort of bound to this supercool, supermature, superperfect, superconsistent image. It looks great on the shelf but it can also hurt people, and stunt their growth, because their image is growing, but their persons are not.” On Miseducation she was already caught between establishing that image and a sense of personhood outside of it, and as “Superstar’s” lyrics hint, that delicate balancing act was untenable from the start.

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Hill performs in London in 2012.

After Miseducation, other artists would employ some of the same escapist fantasies to avoid being confined, though with a much more obvious bent. In 2003, five years after Miseducation’s release, Jay-Z killed his old persona on The Black Album, which at the time signaled his official retirement from music. The “99 Problems” video was controversial for its shoot-’em-up scene, in which Jay-Z is shown gunned down outside an apartment building. In a preamble to the video, which he was made to issue in order to air the video on MTV, Jay-Z explains that the murder as depicted in the video symbolized the “death of Jay-Z, and the rebirth of Shawn Carter.” Drake — with whom Hill shares the distinction of being a successful writer of other people’s songs, and who has also been accused of not properly crediting other artists — shape-shifts from album to album, employing an interest in the music of the African diaspora in ways that echo Hill’s exploration on Miseducation. Jay Electronica’s highly anticipated, long-gestating trilogy (which may never see the light of day) is supposed to be based on The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s film about warring magicians, one of whom fakes his death. In Kendrick Lamar’s Damn, the rapper narrates his own murder, incorporating Hill’s penchant for religious metaphor and nostalgia.

More recently, Kanye West exorcised some thoughts of self-obliteration on “I Thought About Killing You,” the opener of his latest album Ye, which he later implied in an interview with Jon Caramanica in the New York Times was a performance of his own past suicidal ideation. Beyond his reinterpreting her Unplugged song “Mystery of Iniquity” for his 2004 hit “All Falls Down,” West has shared an artistic affinity with Hill. He used school as an extended metaphor for life on his first three albums, echoing Miseducation’s frame. His propensity to share unfinished ideas (on The Life of Pablo and even Ye) parallels Hill’s willingness to do the same on Unplugged. And “Late,” a bonus track from 2005’s Late Registration, might be the best, post-Miseducation example of an artist caught between two existential impulses, because isn’t lateness a step between showing up and not? There’s a way in which West and these other artists perform their own creative oblivion that harkens back to Hill on Miseducation. Her greatest legacy, outside of that album, may be providing for other artists a model of how to retreat.

On Miseducation, Hill elevates herself to a deity and destroys her public image. In it, she explores the tension between her early-twenties idealism and self-righteousness and hints at her later desire to be seen as a more holistic, complex individual. Perhaps now that old image is finally fossilized. As West told Caramanica, of his own self-sabotage and his realization that had he continued with his antics, he “would be legendary but also just a martyr.” Truer words haven’t been spoken about Hill’s artistic reckoning on Miseducation. On a remix of Curtis Mayfield’s “Here but I’m Gone” for The Mod Squad soundtrack, which came out seven months after Miseducation’s release, Hill raps, “It’s either ascension or descension / No third dimension,” but her debut, and her occupying of that same middle ground, would prove the exact opposite. “Here but gone” feels like a difficult state to exist in, but on Miseducation, Lauryn Hill made it an imminently interesting place to be. ●


Niela Orr is a writer from Philadelphia. A former BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, she is a columnist for the Baffler and an interviews editor for the Believer. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Elle, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.

Nicki Minaj's Recent Behavior Shows How Toxic Album Promo Is Now

Instead of letting her new album, Queen, speak for itself, the rapper is sparking controversy in a bid to stay relevant.

Posted on August 24, 2018, at 3:01 p.m. ET

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What made Nicki Minaj stand out as a rapper early in her career was her flow, specifically her ability to morph into and out of vocal flourishes in the same song, or same verse. She was singular in this way — armed with a nesting doll of characters, all of them capable of enhancing a song. Not knowing what a listener might get from a Minaj verse or performance made the experience of hearing her thrilling, even if some of the songs faltered along the way. She was a scene stealer, most notably in Kanye West’s 2010 single “Monster,” but also in songs like Wale’s 2013 single “Clappers,” where she delivers a 40-second verse that easily topples everything that came before it.

For these reasons, along with her vibrant, fearless, and colorful personality (and personas), Minaj ascended to the top of mainstream rap, and during her most prominent run, from about 2010 until now, she has been the lone woman at the top of the mountain. This isn’t as much Minaj’s fault as it is a failure of rap music’s imagination around gender. There are, and have been, several other women rapping, after all. But with the exception of Lauryn Hill and maybe Missy Elliott, Minaj has been the only woman rapper to achieve such widespread popularity, and — as we are seeing now with Cardi B — any other woman topping the charts is placed in direct competition with Minaj by rap writers and listeners alike.

Thus, she reigned largely unchallenged for a run of chart-topping singles and platinum albums. Not only was her musical consistency lauded, but she also was an artist who knew how to use social media to her advantage, cultivating a fanbase — the Barbz — through Twitter and Instagram specifically. It has been the Barbz who, over the years, have built a wall of defense around her online, and supported her career relentlessly against those who might attempt to detract from her successes.

Amazon

The album cover for Queen.

In the waning moments of summer, Minaj continues to remain in the forefront of rap news, but more clumsily than triumphantly. She released Queen, her fourth studio album, on August 10, almost a whole month after her originally announced release date. From the jump, interest in the album seemed tepid. None of the singles really stuck. (Only the first one, “Chun-Li,” managed to peak in the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100). Media coverage of Minaj felt driven mainly by speculation over what conflicts she might or might not be engaging in, or how threatened she did or didn’t feel by Cardi B. Rap fans and onlookers suggested that her time was soon to be up, or that she was stagnating.

Minaj didn’t exactly help matters during the album’s run-up: In early July, writer Wanna Thompson posted a tweet about Minaj’s creative direction, stating that she’d appreciate hearing more mature content from the rapper. Minaj caught wind of the tweets and directly DM’d the writer, in a harsh paragraph teeming with both personal insults and proclamations of what she viewed as mature work she’d produced. Thompson shared a screenshot of the DMs, which put her directly in the sights of Minaj fans, and Thompson eventually lost her job. Weeks later, Minaj took to Twitter to insist that Tracy Chapman’s inability to clear a sample was putting Queen in danger of further delays, claiming that she needed to get ahold of Chapman by any means necessary. This sent some of her fans to the Twitter and Instagram pages of a Tracy Chapman fan account, begging to connect the two artists.

Finally, days after Queen saw the light of day, Billboard numbers had her falling just short of a No. 1 album. She took the No. 2 spot, second to Travis Scott’s Astroworld, which enjoyed its second consecutive week at No. 1. She responded with a series of tweets last Sunday afternoon, shortly after the numbers were released, claiming Scott’s merch bundles — fans could buy tour tickets, a copy of the album, and Astroworld apparel — were the reason he had stayed at No. 1. She suggested that Kylie Jenner had used her and Scott’s baby to help promote Scott’s tour and album, and bizarrely compared herself to Harriet Tubman. This past Thursday, she announced on her new Beats 1 radio show that she would be reading tweets from “haters” and calling them out by name; this just after asking her fans on Instagram to find out the name of the Billboard writer who’d dared to suggest that ticket sales for her now postponed tour were less than robust. It’s confusing to witness. It’s like we’re all watching someone laugh their way into sobs.

Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images

Travis Scott at the VMAs.

Lost in all of this is that Queen is a mostly solid album by a rapper who many — for some reason — consider well past her prime. The stakes for this album felt high, like a statement needed to be made about Nicki’s ability to continue to dominate in a pop climate where she is no longer the only chart-topping woman in rap. Queen reestablishes what Minaj does well; she remains a clever, engaging MC, who can cast a pretty wide emotional net throughout an album. But we aren’t talking about Queen. After its initial release, we’re still talking about Minaj’s antics.

Maybe this is all a part of mainstream music’s economy now, where the album release cycle is often competing with an equally fast-paced news cycle. The album becomes a vehicle, something that can briefly push an artist to the forefront of a pop-culture news cycle for a little while. The artist then is tasked with doing anything they can to hold on to the moment, in hopes that such behavior might sell a few albums, or at least grant some infamy to their name. For some artists, this is a simple routine: interviews, rounds on the late-night shows, maybe a magazine cover. For Minaj, this has meant a rash of behavior which feels like she’s on edge and out of ideas. Yes, she is still a central conversation point as her album finishes its second full week of being out, but the topic of conversation is her, and not what Queen has to offer musically or lyrically. It is almost as if she didn’t trust the album itself to be interesting enough, and so she’s allowed herself to be the album cycle, an instrument of chaos which keeps playing.

The way music is released and consumed has shifted since even 2010, when Minaj released her first album, Pink Friday. The physical album was already giving way to streaming services in 2010. Downloaded singles accounted for 67.7% of music sales that year, while CD purchases only accounted for 14.5%. In 2017, downloaded singles jumped to 74.5% of all music sales. Though music sales in general have been on the rise since 2015, thanks to streaming, it’s a medium that still prioritizes the single over the album.

It is almost as if Nicki didn’t trust the album itself to be interesting enough.

But having a number-one album is still something a lot of artists desire, especially someone like Nicki. And so, many try to find new paths to achieving the goal. Some artists, like Drake, create sprawling, 18-plus-song albums in hopes that the amount of single-song streams will grant them chart success. Some other artists, like Future, release albums frequently and with little warning, dumping them onto a streaming service a week or even hours after the album is speculated about or announced. But because there are more songs and albums and mixtapes coming from more angles than before, to break through, an artist has to be willing to stay in the cultural conversation, no matter the reputational cost.

Kanye West found this out earlier this year, when he returned to Twitter in April in an attempt to draw attention to both himself and his run of projects to be released with G.O.O.D. Music.West publicly expressed support for Donald Trump, boasted sporadically about the projects he was releasing, and in an interview with TMZ suggested that slavery was a choice. But the true goal, it seemed, was to keep himself at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the hopes that it might afford him the attention he needed to hold everyone’s interest for five weeks and five album releases.

Of the five albums – Pusha T’s Daytona, his own Ye, his and Kid Cudi’s collaboration album Kids See Ghosts, Nas’ Nasir, and Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. – all were met with mixed to good reviews, and four of the five debuted in Billboard’s top five. Only West’s album had a No. 1 debut, and 48 hours after its release, almost all of the interest in it had faded. As the weeks wore on, listening to the album became an act of endurance for me, as opposed to one of interest. It became evident that the five-week project wasn’t meant to serve Kanye West’s artists as much as it was meant to serve Kanye West’s desire to hold the spotlight on himself for as long as he could keep it there. This, too, is a part of the album cycle machine.

And so Nicki appears to be following the same blueprint, opting to engage in unpredictable and sometimes explosive behavior instead of touting her album’s merits. If anything, this conduct has made her more insular, as she uses social media to nurse her grudges and coddle her fanbase while alienating almost everyone else. Perhaps this is all part of Minaj’s plan. It can be argued that at this point in her career, she isn’t going to win over any new fans anyway, and much of her long-tenured fanbase is far too entrenched to cut and run now, regardless of what her albums do or don’t sound like. The polarization was already there, and Nicki is exploiting it. Not for album sales, but as a way to be memorable in a rapidly changing music and rap music landscape where the scarcity model she benefited from is (hopefully) coming to an end.

For so long, the palpable ferocity in the rhymes of Minaj were aimed clearly at imaginary foes, issued as warnings, or hints of what she was capable of when pushed. She’s being pushed now, and it seems her aim is suddenly off. ●

Mitski Is Much More Than Another Sad Asian American Girl


Dead Oceans

On her new album Be the Cowboy, Mitski Miyawaki sings about a push-pull kind of love that will sound familiar to longtime fans: “Sorry I don’t want your touch,” goes the singer’s glum fourth track. “It’s not that I don’t want you.”

This ambivalence — the desire for an intimacy that must be measured and carefully controlled — has inspired much of the Japanese American singer’s previous work, yet the inner struggles recounted on Be the Cowboy feel tauter, more strained. In the flurry of press that accompanied the album’s release, Mitski said that she channeled the record through the persona of an “icy repressed woman” whom she envisions as a mutation, or perhaps radicalization, of certain parts of herself. On Be the Cowboy, Mitski leaps from this persona to riff off other fictional voices, telling the stories of a housewife and a melancholic old couple. Fact Magazine called the record a “deft experiment in narrative.” For its own review, NPR ran the headline “Mitski’s fiction is your truth.”

The word “persona” — in its Latin and ancient Greek variations — used to literally mean mask, or the face an actor would wear while performing a stage role. With its spinning rotary of female angst, Be the Cowboy explores the limits of personas, allowing Mitski to swap faces between songs and showcase herself as an artist whose imaginative empathy is matched by a deep exploration of her own emotional range. But of course, masks must eventually come off, and when they do the wearer will reckon with her true self underneath. Be the Cowboy accepts this possibility, but also seems to hint at a darker, more subterranean fear: Sometimes you take the mask off and get a glimpse of your own soul. Other times, however, all you see is “Nobody.”


I first came across Mitski’s music maybe a year or two ago, when I clicked on the video for “Your Best American Girl” while aimlessly browsing the internet. I remember watching her sing, and the surprise of clocking a face that looked more like mine than most others. I remember not really liking what I heard.

Mitski’s sad music seemed indulgent, crooning out an encouragement for lonely girls everywhere to dwell in their own defeat. All I wanted, meanwhile, was permission to feel good. I had already been out of high school for several years and was exhausted by my own confused identity politics, which I’d assembled from the debris of privilege (American, well-educated) fractured by otherness (Asian, female). I wished badly not to worry about any of it anymore. I wanted to listen to carefree music, fuck-you-pay-me music, “Bodak Yellow” music. When I heard Mitski’s songs instead, I recoiled from their melancholia, intuiting that the experience of hearing another Asian woman sing over and over again about not getting what she wanted was probably something I wouldn’t endure well.

But this was only the beginning. In 2017, seemingly everyone began talking about the rise of indie rock’s Asian American women, naming Mitski alongside Michelle Zauner, of Japanese Breakfast, as stars at the helm. Though the two performers differed in important ways, their songs were emotionally earnest and interested in the aesthetics of Americana and the suburban high school experience. They combined poetic lyricism with a more existential loneliness that had something to do with being part of slim ethnic minorities in America. Mitski, the premier example, wrote about universal emotions that resonated with thousands of fans, and yet her videos also hinted at the alienating experience of being a racial other. Hers was a compounded pain, both transcending race and somehow bizarrely tethered to it. Whom was she singing to? Did I resent her because her songs matched too well with my own experiences as an Asian woman, or not well enough?

Mitski wrote about universal emotions that resonated with thousands of fans, and yet her videos also hinted at the alienating experience of being a racial other. Hers was a compounded pain, both transcending race and somehow bizarrely tethered to it.

The burdens that we — the underrepresented — place on both artists and ourselves can be deeply unfair. I tried for a long time to cultivate a taste for Mitski, telling myself that I should be grateful for her success. Not since Karen O, and the brief teenage period when I overrode all available evidence to convince myself that Björk was of Asian descent, had I seen so many women like me performing. Yet I couldn’t shake my unease. Indie rock possesses an undeniable proximity to whiteness, and its fans often seem to demand a certain degree of cute, quirky harmlessness from their female singers. I knew that too often, the alternative sensibilities of the genre can act as a softcore disguise for rampant misogyny. Many lead indie women find themselves deified and turned into something more or less than human. Their angst becomes a fetish, used to stroke and validate the brooding self-images of white male listeners.

In popular media, Asian American women are already stripped of personality, made to look trembling or servile. I fretted over how Mitski’s vulnerability might be interpreted by fans while also resenting her sadness — her celebrated status as indie’s most emotional songwriter — for more personal reasons. It had been a long time since I’d finished high school and moved out of suburbia, after which I’d spent years trying to clamber out the pool of my own racially tempered angst. Mitski’s music felt like a hand from above, pushing me back in.


It can be difficult to separate Mitski’s music from the real live person performing it. In a 2018 interview with the Fader, Mitski recalled once passing through a concert crowd without security present in order to get to the stage. She had thought explaining the situation “would make everyone understand.” Instead, fans started grabbing at her. “It was like everyone’s eyes were sort of glazed over, and they didn’t see me as a real person telling them to stop. And that’s weird.”

The anecdote is vivid, almost eerie, but Mitski isn’t making the point in order to chide fans. “I think humans need symbols,” she says in the same interview, noting that she herself has never quite decided how to negotiate her new status as a beloved, sometimes aggrandized, performer. In Mitski’s view, stretching out a famous person’s human proportions and rendering them into a symbol can be a “healthy” mode of catharsis for fans. Besides, she points out, even in everyday conversations we are “projecting onto each other.” The fulfillment we seek from our idols, we also gain — in small and sometimes damaging ways — by distorting the people around us.


Valerie Macon / AFP / Getty Images

This inevitability is a recurring refrain in Mitski’s music, which explores how relationships beget projection, and how we ourselves are implicated in the ways people hurt us. “‘Cause nobody butters me up like you, and / nobody fucks me like me,” goes the fan-favorite line on “Lonesome Love.” Similarly, the slow-burning track “Remember My Name” dramatizes the anxiety of predicating one’s existence on the presence of others: “I need somebody to remember my name,” Mitski sings, like a person in danger of dissolving.

Mitski’s fans have long appreciated her music’s portrayal of failed or unrequited love. But as Be the Cowboy wheels between different personas and beloveds, the album hammers home a more foundational truth: It’s equally as painful to just try and be present with others. There’s a futility in hearing and seeing a person when you’re constantly using them to prop up versions of yourself. As Mitski sings in “Washing Machine Heart,” “Baby, though I’ve closed my eyes / I know who you pretend I am.”

Listening to Be the Cowboy, I am reminded of a quote from George Eliot’s 19th-century masterpiece Middlemarch: “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world … ? I know no speck so troublesome as self.” Roughly 150 years later, Eliot just may have reframed the problem like this: Who ever fucks you more — or better — than yourself? If this all sounds a little masturbatory, perhaps that’s the point. In the video for one of the album’s singles, “Geyser,” Mitski raises her hand and sings her yearning lyrics to it, an action reminiscent of the famously funny moment in the video for “Your Best American Girl,” when she makes out with her own palm. At the bottom of any search for a partner, she seems to suggest, is the self. We’re compulsively driven toward the presence of those we love, and yet we remain obsessed with how our varied deficiencies and identities rebound off of them, back toward us.

I’d spent years trying to clamber out the pool of my own racially tempered angst. Mitski’s music felt like a hand from above, pushing me back in.

Even as Be the Cowboy speaks eloquently about loneliness, Mitski isn’t necessarily reaching for other people. Often her own personhood appears to be the most elusive, sought-after destination in the album. Who can I be, she seems to be asking, and who — or what — will help me get there? It is almost miraculous that an Asian American singing this type of music has achieved both popularity and critical acclaim in the US, where mainstream culture rarely assumes that the problems of Asian women are philosophical or spiritual, if they exist at all.

One of the most wonderful ironies of Be the Cowboy is that Mitski has proven herself to be a better sad white boy than all the real sad white boys of her genre. Women of East Asian descent, who in America form a relatively affluent minority, are perhaps the true heirs to indie angst, best positioned to harness its requisite dual staples: a sense of unbelonging that borders on the existential, and the time and privilege necessary to sing about it.

Though commentators have said that Mitski’s music is “seldom explicitly political,” her songs remain novel in their questioning of how one should hone a personal, marginalized identity while having relationships with others. This involves a self-centeredness that, for any oft-effaced Asian listener, can border on the revolutionary. At times, watching her perform in front of fans with her eyes closed, it seems as though Mitski is singing not just about but also to herself.


Dead Oceans

Mitski in “Your Best American Girl.”

It was a long time before I could see the radical potential in Mitski’s turmoil, and even now I am unsure if I have been able to look past the speck of myself to truly understand what she’s aiming to do. Mine was a particularly gnarly speck, complicated by various political and racial hang-ups. I wanted something specific from Asian American women in music and was unable to accept it when, instead of modeling strength, they revealed their weaknesses.

When the moment finally came for me to meet Mitski on her terms, I was unprepared. It was while watching a clip of her NPR Tiny Desk Concert. During the second song of the set, “Class of 2013” I watched Mitski hold up her guitar and shout her lyrics into its strings: “Mom, would you wash my back? / This once and then we can forget / And I’ll leave what I’m chasing / For the other girls to pursue.” She looked subdued, pared down to the bare necessities in a long skirt and tank top. The vibrations on the strings caused her voice to rebound, and maybe it was in this thrown echo that I first finally heard her. I am tired, she seemed to be saying, and I am ready to come home.

Onto Mitski I had projected a pining frailty, believing that the lovesickness in her songs prefigured a neglect of the self, a docile masochism. I didn’t realize how wrong I was, and how so much of her music’s yearning was, in fact, the opposite . Mitski’s songs are at base an interrogation and protection and holding of the self. I replayed the video as I teared up, pausing on the still of her lifting her own guitar: Where have you been, I wondered. And what took me so long?


Our favorite musicians have frequently disappointed us in how they choose to express themselves, but since Twitter came along to amplify their voices, the debate has become trickier. We argue endlessly over how much importance we should assign to the political statements of our idols: Shouldn’t they know better? Is it unreasonable of us to expect them to? Just how problematic is your fave? We are, in short, talking about the musicians we deeply love and cherish while trying to be rational in our disappointment. Meanwhile, no one wants to admit that what we want from a musician politically, we often also want from them personally, emotionally, in the desperate way that a child wants something from a god they still believe in and pray to at night. We want a person bigger than us to vouch for our suffering and magnify its profundity. We want to hear someone knowing that they, having never met us, can somehow hear us too.

Mitski’s music seems to hint at the perils of these expectations. The ricochet of different identities in her songs reminds us to treat one another — and, by extension, the artists we follow — a little fairer, while her mature understanding of fame suggests that the symbols we crave can’t always be rationalized. Be the Cowboy emphasizes the difficulty of separating one’s search for the self from one’s view of the other, and it is Mitski’s use of the ecstasy and immense pain in this entanglement that makes her music so exhilarating. Or that’s what it seems like here, at least, from where I stand. ●


Zoe is a graduate student researching 20th-century histories of anti-imperialist literature. You can find her on Twitter @zoe_hu_

Contact Zoe Hu at zh2283@columbia.edu.

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How Taylor Swift Broke All The Rules And Took Back Her Reputation

Her TV appearances are rare and exclusively consist of performances: She was the musical guest to Tiffany Haddish’s Saturday Night Live host in November, and gave a surprise performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in lieu of an interview.

Meanwhile, although she’s been on the covers of both British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar since making her comeback, the magazines didn’t publish interviews. Her Vogue cover was accompanied by a poem written exclusively for the magazine, and in the case of Harper’s Bazaar, Taylor took on the role of interviewer, speaking with ’60s icon Pattie Boyd.

It Looks Like Lauren Jauregui Just Responded To Tiffany Haddish's Fifth Harmony Shade At The VMAs

@LaurenJauregui Well said also I’m waiting for the day when bein kind & having empathy for others isn’t seen as cringy but instead cool and normal, people out here trying so hard to be bad bitches forgetting to look out for each other.. it’s more than just just an entertainment industry ting❤️

23 Stunning Side-By-Sides Of Pop Stars At Their First VMAs Vs. Now

1.

Rihanna: 2005 vs. 2018


Evan Agostini / Getty Images, Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 6

2.

Pink: 2000 vs. 2018


George De Sota / Getty Images, Afp Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 7

3.

Lady Gaga: 2009 vs. 2018


Michael Loccisano / Getty Images, Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 13

4.

Taylor Swift: 2008 vs. 2018


Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images, Lisa O’connor / AFP / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 7

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5.

Jennifer Lopez: 1998 vs. 2018


Michael Caulfield / AP, Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 2

6.

Cher: 1984 vs. 2018


Ron Galella / WireImage, John Phillips / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 0

7.

Beyoncé: 2000 vs. 2018


George De Sota / Getty Images, Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 24

8.

Ariana Grande: 2013 vs. 2018


Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images, Theo Wargo

Number of VMA wins: 1

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9.

Nicki Minaj: 2010 vs. 2018


Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 3

10.

Justin Bieber: 2009 vs. 2018


Michael Loccisano / Getty Images, Jayne Kamin-oncea / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 2

11.

Britney Spears: 1999 vs. 2018


Brenda Chase / Getty Images, Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 6

12.

Miley Cyrus: 2008 vs. 2018


Chris Pizzello / AP, Afp Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 1

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13.

Katy Perry: 2008 vs. 2018


Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images, Allen Berezovsky / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 5

14.

Madonna: 1984 vs. 2018


Associated Press, Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 20

15.

Kendrick Lamar: 2013 vs. 2018


Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images, Larry Busacca / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 10

16.

Kesha: 2010 vs. 2018


Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images, Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 0

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17.

Kanye West: 2004 vs. 2018


Frank Micelotta / Getty Images, Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 5

18.

Christina Aguilera: 1999 vs. 2018


Brenda Chase / Getty Images, Lisa O’connor / AFP / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 2

19.

Kelly Clarkson: 2002 vs. 2018


Rich Fury / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 3

20.

Gwen Stefani: 1996 vs. 2018


Ron Galella / WireImage, Rich Fury / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 4

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21.

Mariah Carey: 1991 vs. 2018


Ron Galella / WireImage, Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 0

22.

Alicia Keys: 2001 vs. 2018


George De Sota / Getty Images, Afp Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

Number of VMA wins: 3

23.

Drake: 2010 vs. 2018


Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images, Evan Agostini / AP

Number of VMA wins: 2