When we last saw Lauryn Hill, basking in the justly deserved accolades for her debut as a solo act, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she didn’t seem at all unhappy. Little did we know. ”I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage,” we hear her tell a small audience on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, her first new work since Miseducation. By now, we’ve become accustomed to the sight of newly minted celebrities — Kurt Cobain, Leonardo DiCaprio, and so on — freaking out over mass success. But rarely, if ever, has an artist in the throes of such tumult been so up-front, making Unplugged perhaps the most bizarre follow-up in the history of pop.
Recorded last summer and broadcast on MTV in March, Unplugged finds Hill accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and presenting a set of new, unrecorded songs. But music takes up only a portion of these two discs. In between nearly every tune is an ”interlude” in which Hill discredits her earlier image (she was, she says, ”a politician”) and uses ”prisoner” twice to describe her life as a star. One of these digressions — her explanation for why she opted to stay in her jeans and not dress up for the TV taping of this performance — meanders on for an interminable 12 minutes. These discursions are perversely fascinating, but including them is a disastrous move; never before has the programming function on a CD player come in so handy. ”I used to be a performer, and I don’t consider myself a performer anymore,” she utters dismissively. (One wishes there were an accompanying DVD with the looks on the faces of her Sony Music bosses when they first heard all this.)
When she finally sings, Hill proves she’s still a performer, albeit not the same one we saw blossom in 1998. At one point, she refers to herself jokingly as ”a hip-hop folksinger,” but that’s exactly what she aims to be. Her supple voice a bit raspy and cracking with emotion, her guitar picking more intricate than one would expect, Hill has the power of projection; by comparison, India.Arie, who has stolen much of Hill’s thunder, seems truly New Agey. Hill’s switch from luscious singing to fierce rapping in ”Freedom Time” is especially potent, a one-woman army on the march.
Unfortunately, her trials and tribulations weight down her music as much as her monologues. Unplugged has a few love songs, such as ”Just Like Water” and ”Just Want You Around,” that ripple with insecurity but at least have a poetic flow. The bulk of the material consists of strummed sermons directed at unspecified enemies and soul crushers. She harangues an unspecified ”Mr. Intentional” (”Stuck in a system that seeks to suck your blood…exploiting ignorance in the name of love”) and social decay in ”Freedom Time” (”A fate worse than Sodom…epidemic lies and deception”). Her own careerist ways are targeted in ”Oh Jerusalem” (”Can I even factor/That I’ve been an actor/In a staged representation of this day?”). And on it goes. Miseducation might have been just as strident had it not been for the multitextured arrangements that compensated for her lack of humor. Stripped down to basics, Hill comes across as one stern, daunting taskmaster. The album ends with the quietly defiant statement of pride ”The Conquering Lion,” but by then you’re too drained to notice the introduction of optimism.
Unplugged is baffling on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. Hill seems to feel Miseducation was commercially compromised, but if she thinks her songs are best served in bare-bones settings, she’s wrong. She should have taken a cue from Bruce Springsteen, who made his post-Born in the U.S.A. struggle universal on Tunnel of Love, which was spare but never undernourished. Even more vexing, Hill puts her audience in an uncomfortable position: Are we supposed to feel we contributed to her crisis by buying so many copies of Miseducation? ”You can’t help me with these chains,” Hill warns at one point. Unplugged makes you wonder if anyone can. Music: B Interludes: C+