About halfway through her new live record, MTV Unplugged 2.0, Lauryn Hill stops to consider her public image. "I don't know what the press is saying," she tells the rapt, borderline-fawning crowd, "'cause I don't really listen to the press too much, but I know the view is I'm emotionally unstable."
Maybe I'm missing something here, but I've never considered Hill a threat to Courtney Love's title as the reigning queen of pop-star instability. Self-important and self-righteous, sure, but not self-destructive. There've been whispers over the last couple of years that she was freaked by her mammoth success -- sales of more than eight million and five Grammys for her 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill -- but such talk seemed more like the byproduct of heightened scrutiny than any real evidence of a breakdown.
But once Hill plants the thought in your head, you find yourself wondering what the hell she's gone through in the last three years to create so much inner torment. Her statement about the media is hardly her most head-scratch-inducing on a record dominated by elliptical monologues, but it typifies the contradictory traits that make Hill so fascinating and exasperating.
She claims to ignore the press yet indicates that she's all too familiar with what they're saying about her. She talks of wanting to share with her audience, of providing crucial information to them, but she's so relentlessly obsessed with herself that when she begins the show by asking "Are we cool?," she looks for an answer not from the crowd, but from "the voices in my head."
Untangling Hill's brilliance from her excess is a tough job, but it's not a thankless one. And in a way, her quandary is that of many great artists. Critics always insist that if you want to create true art -- and not mere fragrant craftsmanship -- you need to dig deep, excavate your insides and put your pain on a platter for everyone to behold. But when artists take this concept to the extreme, they're often mocked for the same neuroses they dared to share. It happened with John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and his corresponding Rolling Stone interview, which earned him much acclaim at the time, but also made him the subject of ridicule. For the rest of his life, he was caricatured as an egomaniacal emotional cripple who thought his every pronouncement was a work of genius.
Like Lennon at that time, Hill seems hell-bent on tearing down the façade of stardom, coming out from behind the curtain and telling her audience "This is me, so take me as I am." She talks frequently on Unplugged of being a prisoner of a public persona, a slave to the expectations of her fans. These assertions are slightly curious, because if Hill had a persona, it was that of an earthy, blunt truth-teller, unimpressed by the glitter of the music biz.
Consider her lyrical dissection of a big-headed MC in "Superstar," one of the highlights of Miseducation: "Now tell me your philosophy on what an artist should be/Should they be someone with prosperity/And no concept of reality?" she asks, going on to attack the spiritual emptiness of people who do "anything they feel just because there's always someone there who'll applaud." It's not far from Unplugged's condemnations of those "blinded by pride and greed," but the difference is that Hill is now blowing the whistle on herself as well.
"These songs are about me first," she explains between songs, and when she sings "Stop blaming other people/It's nobody else's fault" on the album-opening "Mr. Intentional," the message is as much to herself as the self-deluding guy she's targeting.
Joni Mitchell has talked of going through a period in the early '70s -- during the making of her landmark Blue album -- when she was like a walking exposed nerve, so acutely sensitive to any hypocrisy or dishonesty that she felt like she was staring right through everyone she saw. Hill seems to be in a similar zone these days. At a recent performance in Athens, Georgia, she took herself to task for writing a song ("To Zion") about her son: "How dare I make merchandise out of my children when I didn't want them to be here?"
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As discomforting as such outbursts are (New York Daily News critic Jim Farber suggested the album should have been called Lauryn Hill: Unglued), they connect you to something tangible, which is more than can be said for most of Hill's new songs. Too often, her lyrics get bogged down in abstract, vaguely religious sermonizing, made all the more dreary by the sameness of her spare acoustic arrangements.
Several of the tracks ("Adam Lives in Theory," "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind") work in isolation, but the cumulative effect of Hill's bitter medicine (especially over two CDs) is weariness.
The MTV airing of Unplugged is tighter and free of Hill's more rambling introductions. But it's also out of sequence and sometimes lacking in context. As a record, Unplugged is like Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Rolling Stone interview put together: howls of anguish, accompanied by long, conflicted explanations of their meaning. Unplugged isn't sunny summer fare, but it is uncompromised and gutsy. The whole concept of MTV Unplugged has always been to offer a stripped-down take on familiar tunes. Here Hill strips them down before anyone's had a chance to hear them.
And even though Hill's hoarse voice periodically threatens to crack, Unplugged emphasizes what a great singer she is -- and how little credit she tends to get for it. Unlike so many of her peers, she's not merely skilled but deeply soulful, conveying a wisdom and maturity that her lyrics don't always match. More than ever, her rasp makes her sound like a politicized, new-generation Gladys Knight. Unlike Knight, though, you know Hill won't be on that midnight train to Georgia; she'd rather live in her own world than live with him in his.