Lauryn Hill – MTV Unplugged

Lauryn Hill
MTV Unplugged

Much has happened in the life of Lauryn Hill since her days with The Fugees. She has risen to the ranks of platinum selling performer, mother, role model, and beacon of righteousness in the sea of the (mostly) spiritually dead mainstream music scene. At the same time, she has been the victim of lawsuits, rumors, and innuendos that seem to have forced her into hiding the past few years. Even in her absence the question has remained, “Can she top herself?” If her new record is any indication of the future then music fans could be in for a revolution of consciousness.
Hill’s first record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was one of the most highly acclaimed mainstream releases in recent memory. Her Grammy-winning debut was a very eclectic and inspiring mix of soul, hip hop, and political and spiritual themes that sold a ton of records. Miseducation was a shot heard ’round the world that struck a nerve with almost everyone. While there is some controversy as to who actually wrote what on that record, Hill’s radiance definitely shimmered throughout the entire album – so much so that many wondered if she hadn’t bit off more than she could chew. Could she maintain that level of personal and political revelation or would she burn herself out? Her absence the past few years seemed to point to the latter, but the release of her new album should quiet those thoughts.
This new record is about as up close and personal as it is possible to get to any artist. The album is a combination of a confessional and self portrait. In fact, a decent amount of the two-disc record is spent with Hill plainly speaking about her life and the changes that she has gone through. Hill bares her soul for the listener and talks about the demons she has wrestled with since becoming a star in the entertainment field. She has rejected the pomp and fame of the music industry and has instead decided to “share” her music, rather than market it. The songs are heartfelt, beautiful and bursting with honesty – qualities that are hard to find in mainstream music these days.
“I used to be a performer and I really don’t consider myself a performer so much anymore,” says Hill on one of the interludes on the album. “I’m sharing, more or less, the music that I’ve been given.”
This is quite the gutsy statement coming from one of the most successful mainstream artists from recent years. She seems to truly want to take her career in her own hands and not allow record executives, producers, or other hangers-on to hinder her from bringing her truth to people. On the other hand, one could accuse Hill of hypocrisy with her jabs at the record industry while releasing an Unplugged record for the corporate controlled MTV. At the same time though, Hill has a large enough fan base that will continue to follow her on her path towards self realization. With that following, she has given herself “carte blanche” in terms of artistic direction. Even a meddling label would be foolish to try and dissuade her from her pursuit of “sharing.”
The album has a “fireplace” sort of feel, meaning that the listener is made to feel so in tune with the performance that it transcends history and puts them right in those moments of artistic and spiritual excellence when the material was originally performed. At times it sounds as if Hill could be sitting right in the listener’s living room – flaws and all.
The opening track on the record, “Mr. Intentional,” is typical of the style of the entire album – shimmering, soulful singing over a background of straightforward acoustic guitar. Hill’s guitar playing is minimalistic yet full of feeling. One can obviously hear some of the mistakes that she makes from time to time in her playing. At the same time though, the guitar is merely a background for her voice and spirit to echo over. It’s remarkable enough that she can maintain the emotional intensity in her voice while playing guitar at the same time. Her mistakes are easily overlooked as it is very hard not to get sucked into the beauty, rage, and poetry that is inflected by her voice.
Like Cat Stevens and Bob Marley before her, Hill uses her music as an outlet in her search for the divine and the truth in everyday life. Each and every octave that her voice reaches seems to bring her, and the listener, a bit closer to a true sense of spirituality and awareness. “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” is a very powerful track that Hill summons from the depths of her soul. Her emotion runs so high on this track that she even breaks down in tears towards the end of the song. “Mystery of Iniquity” moves from the typical acoustic structure towards a blistering rhyme. Hill seems to be exorcising demons here as her anger rips through. The Bob Marley cover, “So Much Things to Say,” is a perfect fit with the rest of the material. She is one of the few modern artists influenced by him that actually seem to understand where he was coming from.
Though each song on this record is powerful and dynamic in its own way, one can hardly imagine how great each track could be with full instrumental backing and production. Lyrically, there are few better than Hill in terms of conveying a sense of soul that hasn’t been seen since the days of Marvin Gaye. If she takes the time to develop the beauty of the basic rhythms of the songs, she could have another “What’s Going On” on her hands. Even though the songs aren’t completely backed, she has accomplished what she set out to do – simply to share her soul with others. This record accomplishes that like no other release in the Soul genre has in decades.