The first sound out of Lauryn Hill’s 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 it‘s a huge mistake to sum up the whole disc based on those few minutes. ”Peace of Mind“ is not only Hill’s catharsis, but the album‘s 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 Marley’s ”So Much Things To Say.“ (For what it‘s worth, ”Peace of Mind“ is quite moving even before the singer’s 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 Haven‘t Done Nothing“ and ”He’s Misstra Know It All.“ A call for self-reliance that doubles as a shouting-down of the powers that be (the album‘s overriding motif), it’s 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 York‘s finest, and ”Mystery of Iniquity“ delve deeper into the morass of race and politics. ”Iniquity“’s blistering metaphors, finely crafted imagery and reality bluntly spoken make it clear that said mystery ain‘t 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 isn’t 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 I‘d lost youI could barely make a sound“ — but the passion of her singing never wavers. Here and throughout, Hill’s vocals are raspy and strained, imparting a gorgeous world-weariness. Notes are often missed, but they‘re never false, and the emotional payoff is tremendous. The crisply layered dynamics of 1998’s 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 Hill‘s playing chops. She has a strong, distinct rhythmic sense, accenting bass tones to balance the highs. The overall sound is full and rich; she ain’t just striking a boho-Negro pose with her instrument.

Despite its lapses into preachiness (and flirting with reactionary moralizing on ”Adam Lives in Theory“) and the repetitiveness of a lot of the sentiments, Hill‘s 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. We’re given a painstakingly detailed map of her wounds and how they were inflicted.

The collection‘s other dominant quality — an awesome toughness — lies in Hill’s 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 isn‘t just found in the God that Hill praises with a born-again’s fervor. It‘s in knowing that rebellion isn’t in macho (or macha) posturing or scowls, but in the determined whisper when your voice has given out. It‘s 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)

LA Weekly