Often times, we the little folks (so to speak) will envy the “beautiful people”, the “stars” pouting on the cover of magazines, prancing on stages or acting out on TV. What we don’t always realise is that whatever problems you got don’t vanish because you become famous. This is the central theme of this performance, taped on July 21st 2001 for MTV’s Unplugged series and now being released on CD and DVD. Lauryn Hill once fronted the wildly popular hip hop group The Fugees, then she released her solo album (“The Miseducation of…”) to even more success with critics and audiences alike.
And then just like that, she was gone from the spotlight. A couple of years have passed, and now she’s finally come out of semi-retirement, more than willing to share what happened. She goes on in details about what a mess she was and still is to some extent, and how becoming a superstar turned her love for music into a burden, having to be responsible for a 40 people staff, feeling the pressure to be perfect, all around busting her ass yet trying to make it look easy.
No more of that, she’s decided. No more acting like a politician, no more obsessing with her image… She comes out in the MTV studios with just her guitar, looking like a little boy with her denim jacket and baseball cap, and for almost two hours, she just plays it by ear and by heart. We get to hear a lot of wonderful new material, but we also get to meet the real Lauryn for the first time. She spends a surprisingly large amount of time talking about her beliefs and while she offers little more than semi-deep Oprahisms, she’s obviously sincere and passionate about it.
Furthermore, her between-songs chatter is only a warm up for the songs themselves, through which her stories of spiritual self-discovery truly come alive and attain resonance. Suddenly it’s not just words anymore, it’s music, it’s Hill’s raspy but ever expressive voice, it’s soul. Without going into hyperbole, I’d find it justified to describe her set as a direct descendant of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” Lp. Like Gaye, Hill is very sensitive to the horror that often fills the world, yet she still finds herself overflowed with love and hope. One might not share the beliefs of the two, who both link salvation to God, but it’s impossible not to identify with the feeling.
Highlights include the catchy one-two openers “Mr. Intentional” and “Adam Lives in Theory”; “Oh Jerusalem”, a deeply felt song about God; “War in the Mind” and “Mystery of Iniquity”; a pair of political raps (still only accompanied with acoustic guitar!); and “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel)”, a powerful song originally inspired by the gratuitous murder of Amadou Diallo by New York Cops but which evolved into a song about lost freedom in general and the need to rebel against that. And then there is “Peace of Mind”, a wrenching number about her undying love for her husband (“You’re my peace of mind…”) which Lauryn performs so intensely that she finishes it in tears.
The DVD for “lauryn hill MTV UPLUGGED NO. 2.0”, like the performance itself, is a bare-bones affair, with no flashy extras and flourishes. The disc revolves only on the program, which is all about Hill sitting on a chair in the MTV studios, doing her thing surrounded by fans, while the MTV crew go through their characteristically unimaginative camera moves and swooning crane shots. Yet this doesn’t matter, as Hill is so turned on that we don’t need the rest. She’s growing as an artist and as a person, and watching it happen is inspiring.