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6 Rap Songs That Sample Lauryn Hill Masterfully

Lauryn Hill may have mostly retreated from the public eye, but she’s never really left rap music. Her brief catalog—one solo album, one live album, and two albums with the Fugees—still casts a long shadow over hip-hop culture. Most directly, her presence has been felt through sampling. “Ex-Factor” alone has been repurposed over a dozen times, by artists from across the rap spectrum. The second Miseducation single has seen a soulful tribute from Rapsody, a based freestyle from Lil B, an Auto-Tuned rework from PnB Rock and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, and just the other week, back-to-back homages from two of rap’s biggest personalities. First, Cardi B released “Be Careful,” interpolating a lasting lyric in the song’s bridge (“Care for me/Said you’d be there for me”). The day after Cardi’s Invasion of Privacy dropped, Drake released “Nice For What,” his second attempt at nailing a Lauryn sample and now the No. 1 song in the country.

As Doreen St. Félix recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Part of the point of sampling Hill is to tap into her cult of seriousness. As an artist, she represents a purity almost to the point of abstinence.” Hill does personify a certain rap virtue, and sampling her can mean channelling that, but that purity can be and has been distorted to express other things. The laziest Hill samplers merely use her as a signifier, recycling her words and her melodies as substitutes for their own ideas. But the more clever ones have used Hill to enhance their own perspectives. Below are a few Lauryn Hill samples that find new meaning in her voice.

Drake: “Nice for What” (2018)

Ft. “Ex-Factor”

Drake is no stranger to Lauryn Hill samples. His 2014 loosie “Draft Day” was released to commemorate the then-upcoming drafts for NFL prospect Johnny Manziel and NBA prospect Andrew Wiggins. The song itself panned out about as well as the players it celebrated, slowing Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” vocals down to the point of deflating them. Somehow, his raps were even drier. Drake’s second swing at invoking the rap icon, on the early song of the summer contender “Nice For What,” is much more spirited and flat-out more fun. He’s less sullen than he’s been recently, party-ready and perhaps (temporarily) freed from his usual insecurities. But the sample itself, produced by Murda Beatz and Allen Ritter, does most of the work. The song constructs a winding carousel out of Hill’s pleas, functioning as a curio all on its own; it coolly, unexpectedly, mashes up her heartfelt hip-hop soul with joyful New Orleans bounce, conjuring up an intoxicating dance-rap hybrid. The juxtaposition of Hill’s spiraling refrain about struggling to cut ties with a noncommittal lover with Drake rapping things like “You gotta be nice for what to these niggas?” as famous women frolic and pose in the video is especially liberating.

Method Man: “Say” (2006)

Ft. “So Much Things to Say” cover

Critics largely hated Lauryn Hill’s 2002 live album, taped during her performance for “MTV Unplugged,” but rappers have mined it for inspiration constantly. One of the more underrated songs to pull from the live special is Method Man’s “Say,” which samples Hill’s cover of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “So Much Things to Say.” The original appraises the opinions of men against the will of God (“I don’t expect to be justified, by these laws of men”), and “Say,” following suit, is mostly about the outside noise surrounding Method Man and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan as the group continued to dissolve, and as the rap industry at large changed around them. In his verses, the Wu MC takes fans and reviewers to task for their roles in, what he believes to be, a misguided rap culture fueled by unwarranted criticism. “They’ve got so much things to say right now,” Lauryn sings, in this context echoing Meth’s sentiment. The texts enrich each other.

Kanye West: “All Falls Down” (2005)

Ft. “Mystery of Iniquity”

Soul singer-songwriter Syleena Johnson played a Lauryn Hill stand-in on Kanye West’s breakout hit “All Falls Down,” but it wasn’t supposed to be this way. As the story goes, Kanye and his then-manager, John Monopoly, flew down to Miami to talk to the Marley brothers—including Rohan, the father of Hill’s children—before finally getting in touch with Hill herself. Despite what seemed to be a mutual understanding, the sample of “Unplugged” cut “Mystery of Iniquity” never cleared. As a fix, Johnson was brought on to sing the hook, and the other elements were reproduced. West’s original version, containing a more standard sample of Hill’s original about a broken judiciary system, found its way onto the unofficial Freshmen Adjustment mixtape in 2005. But as it turns out, Johnson approximating Hill might have been exactly what “All Falls Down” needed. There is something more natural about the recreated version of the song, which has an almost gospel soul feel without losing the down-to-earth appeal at the center of Hill’s folksy melody.

Knxwledge: “Plaiurprt[TWRK_]” (2012)

Ft. “Oh Jerusalem”

NxWorries’ Knxwledge is one of the most interesting beat makers in rap right now, known for his eclectic palate and his finely chopped soul sample work. Where most Hill samples tend to feature her voice on loop, foregrounding her hard-earned gravitas and her persona in the mind as the record unfolds, Knxwledge chooses to use a segment of the acoustic guitar-driven “Oh Jerusalem” as an endnote on “Plaiurprt[TWRK_].” He clips off the warbling finale of Hill’s nine-minute theological treatise for repurposing. Then, after flipping (future collaborator) Anderson .Paak’s “P.Y.P.” into a funk fusion, the producer effortlessly attaches “Jerusalem,” connecting the songs at their joints. They are so obviously different songs when listened to separately, and yet Knxwledge is able to see them as two halves of a whole, bridging a tiny gap between acoustic soul and funky R&B.

J. Cole: “Cole Summer” / “Can I Holla At Ya” (2013)

Ft. “Nothing Even Matters” / “To Zion”

These charming outtakes from the Born Sinner promo run, respectively released on the two Truly Yours EPs that preceded J. Cole’s sophomore album, are some of the best-kept secrets from the popular rapper turned punching bag. “Cole Summer” chops up Hill and D’Angelo’s vocals from the opening seconds of the neo-soul duet “Nothing Even Matters.” The conversational “Can I Holla At Ya” adapts Hill’s iconic tribute to motherhood, “To Zion,” for a few letters penned with folks back home in mind—an old flame, an absentee step dad, a forgotten friend who picked up an addiction. The voices in the former amplify Cole’s musings, while Hill’s writing is clearly a touchstone on the latter. In his albums, Cole can be contrived and boring, but in these moments he delivers some of his most self-effacing and attentive rapping (“No looking back, don’t even want to see my prom pictures/Pardon the rhyme scheme, I guess I’m long-winded,” he raps on “Cole Summer”). In each case, Lauryn is an usher for thoughtfulness.

Ms. Lauryn Hill headlines day three of Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, with a performance of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Tickets are available here.

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