Lauryn Hill, Unplugged

On Image, Identity, and Improvisations; Or, The
Continuing Education of Miss Hill

"Every single song is about me first," says a plainly clothed
Lauryn Hill to her audience, as recorded on her new Unplugged,
a live acoustic performance broadcast by MTV and now available on compact
disk. She explains that she has been facing her own limitations and her
new songs come out of that exploration; she’s not trying to correct
others as much as she’s trying to correct herself. She, with guitar
is hand, is attempting to grow up in public, and I suspected this after
reading surprisingly unsympathetic comments about her performance and
this disk. I approached the disk with a sense of privilege and trust.
The truth about who we are, about our ambitions and anxieties, pride and
pain, is not so common that the testimony of someone with so much to lose—public
image, money, and career trajectory—is something I was inclined to
listen to cavalierly.

I must admit that I have not admired her work, little I knew of it. I
found the claims made previously for her beauty, talent, and value exaggerated—and
I thought her songs were mundane and that she sang off-key. I did not
listen to the whole of her previous recording, The Miseducation of
Lauryn Hill
, until after I listened to Unplugged. What I think
is interesting about Miseducation is the atmosphere she creates—one
that seems friendly, honest, speculative, and sensuous—as she raps
and sings about love, values and life lessons, and neighborhood and camaraderie.
Neither Miseducation nor Unplugged convinces me that she
is a major talent, or even a significant one, though I find what she is
trying to do now very interesting: she’s trying to grow and take
her audience with her. Unplugged is a collection of thoughts set
to music. I’m not sure most of what she calls songs actually are
songs. Many of them lack melody or any charm (or wit or structure or…);
and her voice is husky to the point of hoarse and singing off-key is common.
She talks about having made sacrifices in the past to protect her voice,
sacrifices she’s rejecting now, sacrifices that kept her from living
fully or interacting with the people in her life, as she had to rest and
not speak. However, her singing here seems honest—full of conviction
and emotion, and yearning toward something, and I have little trouble
listening to her voice; and I think her intentions are honest and that
gives this recording value. (What kind of value? It stimulates thought,
and encourages one on one’s own path.) The recording may prove to
be an important transition in her development. If she does grow as an
artist that development will have value not only for her but us as well,
and that will be the value of art and possibly also philosophy. I regret
that she hasn’t located better models for her growth.

Part of the problem is in how she is thinking about that growth. She
uses generalizations such as "everybody else is just as empty"
and "everybody knows that they’re guilty" and she says
that one shouldn’t hide behind education. However, it is education
and philosophy (the intellectual traditions that individuals and societies
over centuries have been creating and questioning and changing) and it
is the models of other artists that may offer her help—inspiration,
solace, technique. Plato’s dialogs about virtues and the uncertainty
of knowing, Nietzsche on morality, and Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, Hazel
Carby, and Toni Morrison on race and sex might be particularly helpful
to her. Instead, she refers often to the Bible, which she doesn’t
seem to realize is simply another text, another tradition, another cultural
product—and in itself it is now a static text, tradition, and product.
Women musical artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading,
Sade, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Sinead O’Connor have
dealt with the complexities of personality, love, society, and politics,
and dealt with them with more insight, originality, and grace than anything
Lauryn Hill has produced. Why do some people think that writing second
or third-rate songs is better than performing first-rate songs? When women
such as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross wanted to sing
about politics, they picked songs by people like B.B.King, Elton John,
Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Stevie Wonder, and thus
produced intelligent statements equal to the concern or passion they felt.
MC Lyte (Act Like You Know), Queen Latifah (All Hail the Queen),
and Sister Souljah (360 Degrees of Power), to name three women
affiliated with hip-hop, have produced better recordings than Unplugged
and Miseducation. Hill, for the most part, produces mediocrity.

In Unplugged’s "Mr. Intentional," she says, "The
only help I need to live is unprofessional." She’s wrong—a
therapist might help, so might a call to a music publisher. Lauryn Hill
is trying to forge a new language but doesn’t trust most established
cultural references, not understanding that there’s a history of
people who have addressed the issues she’s raising about justice,
self-criticism, and honesty in love and the importance of real care. (If
she knew this history better, she might not be so captivated by her own
banalities.) That is miseducation.

"Adam Lives in Theory" indicates she’s drawn toward creating
parables, but hasn’t mastered this. In "Oh Jerusalem,"
she sings, "Can I factor that I’ve only been an actor in a staged
interpretation of reality?" I wonder: To what extent does taking
up a social role, or artistic intention, involve creating an image, and
is the image always false or deceptive? Is it inevitable that people will
cast us in stories of their own making because of the way we look or something
we’ve done? To what extent is it possible to convey a whole self,
or a complex self, or a final (completely evolved) self? In the intro
to "I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel)," which she says she wrote
after the Amadou Diallo murder in New York (policemen shot him almost
twenty times), she says, "I had to be a living example…I’ve
become one of those mad scientists who does the test on themselves first."
She says the spirit of freedom is taken out of all of us, and in the song
there is a contrast between her light quick notes on the guitar and the
long dark notes she sings. It is possibly the most melodic song on the
album. She sings, "Rebel while today is still today, choose well."

"He’s just like the water…I haven’t felt this way
in years…bathing in the fountain of his essence," she sings
in "Just Like Water," a song about love and sex. How’s
this for graceless: he’s "moisturizing me to satisfaction"?
and for the mundane: "he’s been cleaning me and moving me around"?
In another love song, she repeats, "I just want you around,"
and she sounds more dependent than loving. (She ends by joking about how
she would fade out the song if she were in a studio, but how now to end
she just stops.) "Touch my mouth with your hands," she sings
in "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind," and these words—so specific,
they covey passion and reality—and her struggle for love and spirituality
is vivid, rendered artistically, with craft and meaning for others. She
asks, "Will my devotion last?" These are the hopes and doubts
at the beginning of a new love. She sings, "You are my peace of mind,"
then "please come free my mind." Sounding full of pain, she
says, "I’m telling you it’s possible." There’s
confusion here. "He’s my peace of mind," she says. "What
a wonderful, merciful god," she repeats, crying, before taking a

Upon her return from the break, she asks the audience if it’s all
right, and people clap, and she says, "I was asking a question and
you’ll clap. A yes is okay." She says that her god told her
she was the problem and could become the solution, and that "the
point is to fulfill your passion…Music was a love that became a burden…You
don’t have to fit a standard; you are already a standard."

Hill says that who she was during The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
was more image than identity.

Absolute sincerity is a myth, as is absolute authenticity—and so
is absolute disclosure. A glamorous woman is not automatically a liar,
nor is a rich man in every case a crook. It requires perceptual vigilance,
intellectual rigor, and emotional generosity to look at everyone as an
individual and see who she or he is and to maintain an open sense of whom
she/he might become. Many people expect the truth to look and sound a
certain way—sometimes, however, the truth is not earnest but funny,
and some of Hill’s most effective comments are funny and involve
her contradictions. She talks about working to leave vanity behind, then
says she told MTV they’d better light her better or people would
think she’s a boy, and admits that during the performance’s
break she went wild for a few minutes trying to figure what clothes to
change into before deciding to put back on what she started with.

Often her spoken comments are more engaging than her songs. "Mystery
of Iniquity" is a quick, rhetorical rap about law and injustice preceded
by a few song lines, and it’s not bad, while "I Get Out"
is her declaration of independence, in which she sings "I’ll
get out of all your boxes" and "I won’t support your lie
no more, I won’t even try no more" and "Who made up these
schools I say? Who made up these rules I say" and "superstition
[is] killing freedom." Neither political ideology nor religious belief
is philosophy and what is religion but superstition tied to the hope for
transcendence? "I’m yours to command," she sings in "I
Remember" and one wonders how freedom relates to this vow. "I’ll
never forget how they crucified Jesus Christ" she sings in "So
Much Things to Say," reiterating very old lessons and older clichés,
such as "The rain don’t fall on one man’s house."
"She’ll break every chain," she sings in "The Conquering
Lion," and that is certainly a hope, though now all we have are the
proof of her intentions, not their execution.

We talk a lot about freedom in this country, but we don’t always
recognize it, and sometimes women who pursue their own freedom are demonized—and
so I welcome Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged as steps in the right
direction. I hope she continues to grow. Meanwhile, I expect to be listening
to Annie Lennox, Cassandra Wilson, and other favorites who sing good songs
beautifully. Ultimately, most of us are forced to improvise our lives—some
of us choose to improvise—and if we’re lucky we also can sing.

5 thoughts on “Lauryn Hill, <em>Unplugged</em>”

  1. I love Lauryn Hill. When the industry tries to destroy an artist they began with their image first. You may not like her, but you can’t touch her. She’s much respected.

  2. The worst review ever. It is truth when it is said that ” some are born with sight, but lacking vision”. You are not even halfway to understanding the levels that this woman is on, both mentally and spiritually. You can never touch Lauryn, she is hiphop royalty. “You can’t match this rapper/actress, more powerful than two cleopatras” I use her own lyrics to smite you.

  3. ConqueringTruth

    Fuck you dude. You can not even muster the truth that is right before your eyes…Lauryn Hill is pure genius and it is people like you who have the population believing that she is not. She can see things that we refuse to acknowledge and make it into a song so that we can understand. Shes a musical prophet if you ask me. So in conclusion, I believe your “interpretation” of her mtv unplugged sesion is bogus. Maybe you should do some research yourself and find out that we are all being excluded from the truth and it’s up to people like Lauryn to guide us to that truth.

  4. How dare you , not allow yourself to step out of that superficial existence the world has subjected us to for so many years. This women has grown within herself to reach this level of acceptance spiritually, and mentally. Looking past the adversity, and image’s of sexual exploration that she has to compete with in order to maintain her self respect in a game where begin yourself isn’t always appreciated.

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