In 1999, Lauryn Hill won five Grammys for her solo debut, graced the cover of every major magazine and became the darling of the pop music universe. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was unanimously touted as an instant classic; Time even named it the greatest hip-hop album ever, though it wasn’t really a rap record. The former Fugee was poised for multifaceted superstardom, with endorsement deals, movie roles and sold-out tours looming on the horizon. But then, without warning, she disappeared, surfacing only to announce the birth of two children. Finally, on the two-disc set of all-new material she recorded for MTV Unplugged, Hill emerges, embracing a drastically stripped-down sound and explaining her absence in a series of revelatory diatribes.
The visual version of Hill’s Unplugged set is a worthwhile prerequisite to playing the disc, because it details her new agenda. She’s shunned the fashionable look that undoubtedly boosted her appeal, clipping her locks, eschewing cosmetics and joking that if folks didn’t know her, they’d think she was a boy. “It’s a new day,” she proclaims before jumping into “Mr. Intentional,” a direct jab at a former lover.
Hill has also erased the glamour from her sound. Her raspy voice trembles with raw emotional power, but she often struggles to find the right key. She stumbles over lyrics, loses her breath and fumbles on guitar, missteps usually covered with studio gloss. The demo-like sound quality gives the album a natural, realistic feel, making the poignancy of each tune truly sting. Hill openly reveals her wounds and invites listeners to feel her pain, which intensifies the emotional connection.
Countering the often-depressing vibe of her relationship-themed songs are Hill’s religious numbers. Unfortunately, Hill’s newfound spiritual side bogs down the pace as she gives praise to God more often than a devout star athlete in a postgame press conference. Also, her ideology can be trite and confusing, veering from comforting to disturbing. At first, she seems uneasy balancing all of the elements of her complete musical makeover, but she soars on several ballads toward the end of the first disc and maintains that momentum on the second.
Hill opens Unplugged‘s second chapter with a ten-minute monologue before proving that she can still rhyme by dropping blazin’ poetics on “Mystery of Iniquity.” Only two positions/Victimizer or victim/Both end up in destruction trusting this crooked system/Mafia with diplomas/Keeping us in a coma/Trying to own a piece of the American corona, Hill spits. In search of her new self, she never directly references Miseducation, but the reggae-tinged “I Remember” and “The Conquering Lion” resemble material from that era.
Hill’s comeback bid isn’t flawless. She gets a bit chatty (there are seven lengthy interludes, though none is as tiresome as Miseducation‘s classroom skits), and girlfriend needs more guitar lessons (many of the songs are musically indistinguishable). Still, she deserves credit for being brave enough to radically reintroduce herself. Unplugged is so intimate it’s as if Hill is letting listeners bear witness as she washes away her pain during an acoustic therapy session.