By the time Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged performance was taped last summer, it seemed like the singer might never record again. That suspicion was further solidified when, almost a year later, Columbia threw Hill’s fans a scrap by releasing the performance of all-new material on CD. While Miseducation‘s Lauryn seemed like a messenger with enough conviction in The Word that even atheists stopped to take notice, the new Lauryn seems more like a blinded sheep. The more she questions her own power, the more she turns to the safety of her faith. The album’s many interludes display a superstar wounded by a perpetual shower of accolades and subsequent self-doubt. Hill claims to have been held hostage by her fame on “Oh Jerusalem” (“Can I even factor/That I’ve only been an actor/In a staged interpretation of this day”) and downplays the sincerity of her previous work (“I tried to hide behind education and philosophy…All this time professing to be spiritual”).
Many of Hill’s political messages are unfocused and vague, weighed down by buzz words like “system,” “deception” and “corruption.” “Mystery of Iniquity” becomes diluted, her missive smothered by endless legal metaphors. Even more so than the potent and multihued Miseducation, the intense Unplugged is devoid of real joy, leaving the listener weary rather than inspired. The album’s most disquieting piece, “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind,” finds Hill at her most desperate, choked with tears by song’s end: “Please don’t be mad with me/I have no identity/All that I’ve known is gone/All I was building on.” The moment is both moving (her ability to publicly free herself so fully is beyond admirable) and utterly self-serving.
Hill’s guitarwork is multi-textured and fine-tuned but her vocals lack confidence and seem to toe the edge of her range throughout the album. And though the stripped-down nature of the show is fitting, many of the songs sound as if they are still in their infancy. One can even imagine the impending beats building up around the simple arrangements of more developed songs like “Mr. Intentional” and “Adam Lives in Theory.” While “Freedom Time” may have been weeks ahead of its time (“How can we show up for an invisible war/Preoccupied with a shadow?”), many of the songs are in need of trimming, pinching and a little reassessment. The question remains if and when Hill will be ready to deliver Miseducation‘s follow-up and which of the songs on Unplugged, if any, will make the cut. One thing is for sure: the world will be patiently awaiting her return.