Song 331: Lauryn Hill, “Ex Factor” (1998)


Have I really not written about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill yet?? What a ridiculous situation. This record is one of my all-time favorites, and a member of the list of Records That Got Me Through Freshman Year of College. Given the number of amazing songs on the thing, it’s no wonder that the songwriting credits have been in legal dispute since its 1998 release. I’d want credit for these songs too.

Fifteen years and several career dramas later, Hill’s debut sounds anything but dated. Its blend of soul, hip-hop, R&B and pop still sounds fresh and original. I was going to write about the exuberant “Every Ghetto, Every City” or the beautiful “To Zion,” but listening to the album today, I was reminded how much I love “Ex Factor.” Placing this heavy, slow track so early in the record shows just how confident Hill was about the album’s momentum. “Ex Factor” features a beat (featuring a tympani!) heavy enough to sink a ship, paired with bright, sad piano notes. In the middle is Lauryn, lamenting the relationship that has doomed both partners (one of whom being—and I swear this is a coincidence—one of this week’s subjects, Wyclef Jean).

“I know what we have to do,” she sings near the song’s midway point, “you let go, and I’ll let go too.” It’s a big fat tragedy of a song, but it’s downright gorgeous, from Hill’s typically perfect voice to the guitars and organs that ornament the sadness. The lyrics are simple but effective, especially in the coda section (beginning around 3:25), which consists of a series of accusations and broken promises: “Care for me, care for me, you said you’d care for me/There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me.” It’s all very plain, but that’s what makes it so heartbreaking.

Speaking of heartbreaking, we’re all waiting for a true follow-up to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and it seems less and less likely to happen. In the meantime, however, Miseducation seems like more than enough.


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