“Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill (1998)

If nothing else, I have to give props to Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” for adding the word “reciprocity” to my vocabulary. I’ve used it quite a bit in the last twenty years.

I think part of the reason there aren’t that many bands and groups as there used to be is because it’s so hard to get people to recognize their roles and work together, especially when things like money, fame and ego are involved. The Fugees are a great example of this; the power dynamic was screwed up almost from jump. Lauryn got the lion’s share of the press (and rightfully so), and got a lot of it at the expense of Wyclef and Pras. When things are supposed to be a democracy and it becomes clear that an equal talent share isn’t the reality of a situation, things can get crazy quickly. The Fugees didn’t have to worry about that on a grander scale immediately because their first album wasn’t commercially successful. After The Score blew up in ’96, the imbalance became obvious because money and fame and ego (and proper credit, and larger amounts of press ink, and awards) became involved.

Somehow, in the midst of all that, Lauryn and Wyclef (who was also married to someone else) were involved in a romantic relationship. I’ve always been a proponent of not shitting where you eat, and what ultimately happened with The Fugees (again, with this distorted power dynamic at play) is what happens when work relationships go wrong x, like, 500.

“Ex-Factor” (and Miseducation as a whole) is what happens when you channel all of that pain into art. Lauryn sings the song sweetly, but she also sings passionately. She sounds frustrated, confused, and by the song’s end (“I know what we have to do/You let go, and I’ll let go too”) she’s resigned. As mature as the song itself is, there’s also a level of vulnerability displayed in Lauryn’s lyrics that can only come when you haven’t learned to protect your heart yet.

A solid chunk of Miseducation has become less enjoyable to me in light of the slow-motion unraveling of Lauryn Hill over the past two decades. Thankfully, “Ex-Factor” has lost none of its beautiful but painful glow.

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