Shuffle : Ex Factor
Remember when Lauryn Hill looked like she was going to be the next Female Superstar? It was a long time ago. But she was poised on the brink. She had a great voice, she was pretty and sexy in a unique way, she could write songs, she could rap (sorta), she acted, she was in a big, important crossover Hip Hop act and she went solo and was just as big that way with an album that played a big part in advancing Neo-Soul in the mainstream. She seemed smart, articulate, motivated, together. And she was young. Who knew how far she could go, how great she could be?
Then she lost it. Religious denouncements, rambling speeches about "the machine", a boring, self-indulgent live and unplugged second solo record. She never looked happy during that mercenary Fugees reunion a few years back, even if it did demonstrate that she still possesses that gorgeous voice. The reunion fell apart, due to her "issues", according to Pras. She lives with Rohan Marley and their 5 children. Apparently she writes. Good for her.
That debut album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is a classic, but a lot of it I can't really listen to. All the filler stuff between songs is unutterably tedious, and Hill's lyrics - even then, before she really went for it - could be terribly preachy and worthy. But some of the songs, many of them, even, are knockouts. None more than "Ex Factor", Hill's breakup ballad and a song that sounds as if it could almost have come off any great soul record since 1970 without seeming out of place.
The arrangement is solid yet gossamer, containing a Wu-Tang clan sample - a delicate piano figure riding swirls of what sounds like harp and a rolling, casual rhythm track. All of which puts the focus on her voice and the passion she puts into these words. Always a marvelously expressive vocalist, Hill is capable of sounding joyous, of making us hear the smile on her face as she sings. There is none of that here. She soars and growls through some of it, but most of the time she sounds as if she's singing on the verge of tears, her voice always fragile, at the cracked emotional edge of her register. The echoed channels where she repeats words, acting as her own m.c. and her speaking voice sounds calm and lucid, even bored, just makes the passion of the sung performance more obvious. At the climax the song explodes, unable to contain that level of emotional tension, and multi-tracked Hills demand that this Ex cry for her and remind him he said he'd die for her. Meanwhile a pointed guitar solo cuts through the mix.
Reportedly inspired by her relationship with Wyclef Jean, the lyrics are breathtakingly candid and truthful - Hill by turns berates this man, scolds him, pleads with him, professes love for him, regrets how it has gone between them. It's a love song suffused in hurt and self-knowledge; Hill singing as a woman clinging to a man she knows is no good for her. The sadness coming from the realisation that it must end, and the only thing worse than it ending would be it continuing. A song of bad love, a song based, like all great love songs, on universal human truths, on the realities of human nature. And yet always a Song - filled with lovely rhymes yet never precious in its poetic plain-speaking: "Tell me who I have to be/ To get some reciprocity" "And when I try to walk away/ you hurt yourself to make me stay/ This is crazy".
Its a beautiful song. I once saw the Afghan Whigs cover it as part of their live show, Vanilla Fudge-style, and it was perhaps the best moment of the night, all the more so for being so unexpected, with Greg Dulli seemingly living the end of the song as much as Hill does, the band laying down a much heavier groove than in the Hill version. I imagine it will be covered a lot more over the coming decades, maintaining Lauryn in her retirement.