The first sound out of Lauryn Hills mouth on her new, live Unplugged CD is laughter. She laughs often throughout the concert, riffing on rumors about her insanity and playfully needling a familiar face in the crowd. This is the album recently dubbed Unglued by one critic and roundly bashed by many others for being too dark, too depressing -- too much the sound of an interminable nervous breakdown. That assessment is largely based on the now-infamous performance of I Gotta Find Peace of Mind, during which Hill sinks into a loop of despair that feeds upon itself and grows exponentially; her sobs and gasps create a moment of such private and intense suffering that you want to turn away. But its a huge mistake to sum up the whole disc based on those few minutes. Peace of Mind is not only Hills catharsis, but the albums as well, marking a subtle if uncalculated plot twist in the sequencing of the brand-new, previously unheard songs. What follows from that point on is a sustained, riveting burst of clarity and focus, including a sterling cover of Bob Marleys So Much Things To Say. (For what its worth, Peace of Mind is quite moving even before the singers tears start falling.)
The opening salvo, Mr. Intentional, lays the groundwork for the poetry and polemics that sprawl over the collection, with lyrics whose thematic bloodline can be traced to such Stevie Wonder classics as You Havent Done Nothing and Hes Misstra Know It All. A call for self-reliance that doubles as a shouting-down of the powers that be (the albums overriding motif), its a tense missive from the trenches of modern race, gender and class battles, from black to white, woman to man, poor to rich. Accept the truth about you, she seethes to an unwanted, ego-driven patron. You know that life goes on without you. I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel), written in memory of Amadou Diallo shortly after he was slaughtered by New Yorks finest, and Mystery of Iniquity delve deeper into the morass of race and politics. Iniquitys blistering metaphors, finely crafted imagery and reality bluntly spoken make it clear that said mystery aint really so mysterious: Do we expect the system made for the electTo possibly judge correct?Properly serve and protect?Materially corrupt, spiritually amuckOblivious to the cause, prosperously bankruptBlind leading the blind, guilty never definedFilthy as swine . . . It also boasts the line of the year: When the son of perdition is commander in chiefthe standard is thief.
But Unplugged isnt just a political manifesto. One of its best moments is the sparsely strummed, straightforwardly written love song Just Want You Around, where her voice cracks on the words --Thought that Id lost youI could barely make a sound -- but the passion of her singing never wavers. Here and throughout, Hills vocals are raspy and strained, imparting a gorgeous world-weariness. Notes are often missed, but theyre never false, and the emotional payoff is tremendous. The crisply layered dynamics of 1998s Miseducation, her solo debut, have been replaced by Hill pulling an I-and-I guitar move still raw and developing but surprisingly good. Blessed with state-of-the-art recording, the sound quality is so crystalline that it hurts, underscoring Hills playing chops. She has a strong, distinct rhythmic sense, accenting bass tones to balance the highs. The overall sound is full and rich; she aint just striking a boho-Negro pose with her instrument.
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Despite its lapses into preachiness (and flirting with reactionary moralizing on Adam Lives in Theory) and the repetitiveness of a lot of the sentiments, Hills Unplugged is an album of defiance and something approximating joy: joy snatched from within a painful journey, joy in the creative process, in gingerly embraced liberation. But that joy is bruised and scarred, iced with melancholy. Were given a painstakingly detailed map of her wounds and how they were inflicted.
The collections other dominant quality -- an awesome toughness -- lies in Hills willingness to be vulnerable. No other album released so far this year has quite captured the sound of this insane moment we live in -- the fear, the frustration, the struggle to articulate both anger and sadness in the face of multitiered opposition -- while also pointing a way toward transcendence of the here and now. And that transcendence isnt just found in the God that Hill praises with a born-agains fervor. Its in knowing that rebellion isnt in macho (or macha) posturing or scowls, but in the determined whisper when your voice has given out. Its in the act of simply saying no when rolling over and saying yes would make life so much easier, if barely tolerable.
Lauryn Hill performs at the Hollywood Bowl, Sunday, July 14.
LAURYN HILL | Lauryn Hill Unplugged 2.0 (Sony)