Music: The Righteous Sister Lauryn Hill Is Stealing Hip Hop Back from the Menace of Gangsta. How? by Steeping Herself in the History of Black Female Divas. It's Not Just about Rap; It's a Battle for the Soul

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Lauryn Hill has a big mouth, and it sits in the middle of her tiny face as though God, in a moment of more-than-divine inspiration, had stuck the fabulous lips of Millie Jackson on the petite features of a young Diana Ross.

Which is apposite, really, because when Hill opens the mouth to rap or sing, the tough alto voice that issues forth is a lot closer to the husky come-on of Jackson - or the imploring warmth of Gladys Knight - than it is to the sugary purr of the former Supreme. In addition, there's a strident feistiness to Hill's tone that suggests she may just be the Angela Davis of hip hop - a sweet black angel in a Chevy Suburban.

A lot of words have poured out of Hill's mouth in the past six months, both in song and on the printed page. The 23-year-old mother of two from South Orange, New Jersey, has a lot to say, and ain't afraid to say it. "Every man want to act like he's exempt/ When him need to get down on his knees and repent," she admonishes on the startling "Lost Ones", first song proper on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "Music is supposed to inspire/ How come we ain't getting no higher?" she demands to know on "Superstar". Even on the delectable "Doo Wop (That Thing)", Hill finger- wags the warning "that was the sin that did Jezebel in/ Who you gon' tell when the repercussions spin?" Easy, sister! Amid the mass prostration that's greeted Hill's runaway megahit of an album - The Miseducation sold more copies in America in its first week than any previous album by a female artist, and is up for no less than eight Grammy awards - some dissenters have accused the girl of being preachy. Hill would probably say there was a need for preachiness in late- Nineties America: not the preachiness of the Baptist matrons who've been trying to gag hip hop for 10 years, but the rhetoric of artists who've had enough of the callous cynicism and dehumanising materialism of black pop-culture in the post-soul era. Hill, in a nutshell, is trying to lead hip hop and R&B back to the soul music she devoured after stumbling as a little girl on a dusty stash of 45s in her mother's basement. "Black music right now is like this whole Star Wars battle," ?uestlove of Philly hip hop band The Roots told Rolling Stone. "There are very few people on the side of art who are goin' up against the Death Star. D'Angelo is Luke Skywalker. Prince, Stevie, James, Marvin and George are our Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And, most definitely, Lauryn is Princess Leia." Nor is it just about "soul" music. On The Miseducation, Hill rustles up soul, gospel, jazz - above all, the righteous riddims of roots reggae. If there's an unseen presence behind the album, it's that of Robert Nesta Marley, whose hallowed Tuff Gong studio was the music's seedbed and whose son Rohan is the father of Hill's babies. From the rippling snare rolls and I-Threes choruses of "When It Hurts So Bad" to the "Concrete Jungle" homage that is "Forgive Them Father", The Miseducation is rooted in Marley's militant spirituality. Marley, of course, was just as central to The Score, the brilliant and hugely successful 1996 album by The Fugees, the hip hop trio in which Hill first made her musical mark. Aside from its heavenly version of "No Woman, No Cry", The Score was strewn with reggae references and shot through with a loose Caribbean-feel that sharply distinguished it from its hardcore- by-numbers predecessor, Blunted By Reality. The Score, too, was where the world heard Hill soaring her way through Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song", a rap-soul hybrid that lit up America and blew the cobwebs from a stagnant, gangsta-dominated scene. Hill has hinted that her fellow Fugees were unhappy about her recording solo - despite having released solo albums of their own. (On "Lost Ones", a bracingly vengeful song widely presumed to be about Fugees mainman, Wyclef Jean, Hill sneers that "my emancipation don't fit your equation". …