The Genius of Lauryn Hill's MTV Unplugged No. 2.0
Lauryn Hill, of Orange County New Jersey, still stands today as one of the greatest female rappers of all time. Her career, which started out with the famed super-group (featuring Wyclef Jean) the Fugees churned out deeply meaningful, soulful hip-hop in songs like "Killing me Softly", which explored emotional territory previously unexpressed in mass-selling hip-hop. The Fugees owed much of their success to Hill's talent as a singer, rapper, and musician. She's handy with the guitar, political theory, and theology, a triple-threat of sorts that armed her to compose songs that were confrontational, meditative, and most of all. . . true.
Hill built on her success with the Fugees by cutting one of the most critically claimed and essential hip-hop albums of all time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released in 1998 (the golden year of rap? Outkast's Aquemini was released the same year).
The album was lambasted by the critics. Fair enough. Half the tracks featured Hill talking. Better yet, preaching. I think the album is better off for it.
If Hill was once at least aware that she was "miseducated" (by racism, by capitalism, by advertising, by the flesh of the world and it's temporary but unfulfilling allure) here we reap the benefits of an educated Lauryn Hill, one who seeks spiritual truth, one who presents herself naked before the audience. Hill claimed that she had to do some "dying"- what we all need to do- as we shed the old skin that is the worst of us (that we are too often in love of) as part of the redemptive story of life. Part of this dying that Hill undertook is documented in this album. We hear of God. Evil. Temptation. Sin. Redemption. And the rest.
Hill was no longer interested in presenting her music with any hint of glossed over commercial appeal. Critics complained about her voice. Famously, Robert Christagu called it "poor", labeling the album one of the worst put out by "an artist of any substance".
In fact, Hill addresses her voice directly in the album: "I know I sound raspy, but hey, I used to go on tour, and I was a prisoner. I wanted to maintain this immaculate sounding voice, but that's not realistic. You know, reality is, sometimes I stay up late, and this is what I sound like when I wake up the next day. It's a voice. The more I focus less on myself the more I realize I can be used to spread a message".
That's what this album is. A voice- specifically, the voice of someone who has come out the other side to show us that the suffering has been worth it, with an immediate, soulful acoustic guitar serving as the backdrop. There's always suffering in life. What makes it worthwhile? You can hear it, here, between all-out rap assaults on systems of oppression to introspective, fire-lit tunes that feature Hill's intimate guitar and earnest voice.
Today, that voice is all we have of Hill's musical output. MTV Unplugged No. 2.0. was the last album she ever released. Whatever Hill's gone on to do since her career in music ended, I'm thankful that she left us with something as beautiful as Unplugged 2.0.
Lauryn Hill stated towards the beginning of the album that "all these songs start with me". Square one. A human soul. She's right. It's Lauryn Hill, her voice, and us.
Spotify link to album: https://open.spotify.com/album/22tn8fUpD1lurSga9yuqhM
Lyrics link: https://genius.com/albums/Lauryn-hill/Mtv-unplugged-2-0