Lauryn Hill's second LP, released 12 years ago today, was universally panned by critics and fans alike, but one writer believes it deserves another chance.
On her second solo album, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, Lauryn Hill, speaking to an intimate live audience in New York City, could be heard uttering that word over and over and over again. “See, fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need,” she told the crowd, balancing on a stool in a navy blue Yankees hat, jean jacket, and gold hoop earrings. “And I just retired from the fantasy part.” From the very first note, sung in an uncharacteristically raspy tenor, it was clear that fans were about to get a heavy dose of what they needed, whether they liked it or not.
In 2002 the album was met with lackluster record sales and lukewarm reviews, a stark contrast to the outpouring of praise and Grammy Awards garnered by The Miseducation of Lauryn Hillin 1998.
The very things critics derided the then-27-year-old singer for at the time are exactly what make the album so daring in retrospect.
Today, the performance can be appreciated as a true testament to unvarnished artistry. For better or for worse this is Lauryn Hill unplugged. Not LL Cool J with a full backing-band. Not Jay-Z with a DJ. This is just Lauryn, an acoustic guitar, a microphone, and the occasional throat lozenge. L Boogie stripped down to the basics.
The very things that critics derided the then-27-year-old singer for at the time—the hoarseness of her voice, the lack of structure in her songwriting, the lengthy diatribes on weighty topics like God, celebrity, and love—are exactly what make the album so daring in retrospect. Few artists, past or present, would have the courage to follow up the biggest success of their career with 106 minutes of uncut, unfinished, never-before-heard material. For this reason alone, Unplugged No. 2.0 deserves respect.
The record is not for everyone. Despite Hill being one of the greatest rappers to ever pick up a mic, the songs on Unplugged are not especially bound by rhyme or structure, and those craving either will undoubtedly feel lost at times. Standout cuts like “Adam Lives in Theory” and “Mr. Intentional” are tuneful and melodic, but still unfold more like free verse poetry set to chord progressions than pop songs. This is music that asks something of its listeners. It requires a fair amount of imagination in order to envision how great these tracks could have been if only given the proper time and production.
The album’s greatest hurdle, and the one most often pointed to by its critics, is Lauryn’s penchant for lengthy soliloquies in between songs, philosophizing on her journey from New Jersey schoolgirl to Fugees MC to working mother to solo superstar to, well, rejecting all of that in favor of becoming a messenger of God. While these sermons of self-exploration are often portrayed as little more than the ramblings of a crazy person, the truth is they really aren’t that crazy after all. Her comments on the pitfalls and pressures of celebrity are unusually candid and remarkably self-aware for someone so famous. "Music was my love, and because of everything I thought had to accompany my music, it became my burden," she tells the crowd during an interlude. "It just got stolen from me. I said, 'What is this? How did this thing that I love so much so easily and so quickly turn to something I loath and hate?' And so now, you know, I understand that it was because I was measuring myself or trying to compare myself to a standard that wasn't reality."
She knows her voice is raspy. She understands the songs are unfinished. She’s gets that people think she’s losing it. But this is who Hill is, without the bells and whistles of fame, and that’s who we wanted to hear unplugged, right?
“A bunch of musicians are busting their [asses], working all hard to make it look easy,” she explains, only a few minutes after breaking into tears at the end of “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” a
This is what we claim to want from our artists, isn’t it? For them to be honest? For them to speak their minds?
nine-minute-long neo-gospel ballad. “I mean, you know, slaving. Slaving to act like, ‘I wake up like this.’ And none of us do, you know, none of us do. None of us do. And reality is good, because that means everybody could just exhale, let your belly out, you know, and chill. But people get mad at me when I say, ‘Look, let’s stop frontin’.”
This is what we claim to want from our artists, isn’t it? For them to be honest? For them to speak their minds? For them to put so much of themselves into their music that they’re literally brought to tears? But when faced with the messy reality of it, often times we’d prefer the fantasy with the glossy finish. We already have a Beyonce to look flawless, and act flawless, and put out flawless records, but here is a collection of songs -- the last full-length album by one of the most talented musicians of our time -- where every crease, every wrinkle and every blemish is not only plainly visible, but asking to be celebrated.
And 12 years later it still feels refreshing.
“It’s reality,” says Lauryn at the end of “Mystery of Iniquity,” the song Kanye West would later famously sample for “All Falls Down.” “I think y’all got that by now.”