Raw, brilliant and prophetic: Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged concert 20 years later
Twenty years ago, the singer and rapper Lauryn Hill divided critics and fans with the release of her album “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.”Consisting of 13 acoustic guitar-driven songs—half-rapped, half sung—and nine spoken interludes, all littered with biblical references, the album was called a masterpiece by some (including Kanye West, who sampled one of the tracks on his debut album), while others, citing her cracking vocals and extended “rants,” saw it as an unfortunate fall from grace.
Despite its mixed reception at the time, today the album leaves listeners with questions and provocations that are just as relevant as they were 20 years ago, if not more so. Hill’s ability to wrestle with the realities of original sin and grace—as they apply to both her own life and the institutions that hold power in our society today—echo the prophetic sensibilities of the greatest religious figures and musical artists.
A New Jersey native, Hill was born in Newark and then moved to the more suburban South Orange, where she eventually attended Columbia High School. Her devout Baptist parents instilled in her from a young age the importance of faith, which would later go on to shape much of her artistic sensibility.
The album was called both a masterpiece and an unfortunate fall from grace.
It was in her freshman year of high school in 1991 that she was approached by Pras Michel, a Haitian immigrant, to form the rap group The Fugees. As part of the group, Hill made a name for herself for her cutting rhymes and melodic singing. Despite the massive success of The Fugees (with hit singles like “Killing Me Softly,” “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La”), Hill decided to go solo in 1998.
The release of her debut solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” rocketed her to astronomical success. The album went on to influence a slew of artists in the years after its release, and it radically altered the trajectory of Hill’s life and career. She later admitted that she was shocked by the amount of attention that the album won her and was overwhelmed by the unrealistic expectations of her label and the music industry as a whole.
Hill was faced with mounting pressure to churn out more work; this began to conflict with her philosophy of what it meant to be an artist, a profession that she said requires “periods of peaks and valleys: times of creativity and times to live life and learn from experience.” The pressure was intensified by conflicts with family members, who became financially dependent on her. She also faced tension with the musicians she collaborated with to make “The Miseducation,” who ended up suing her for using “their songs and production skills, but fail[ing] to properly credit them for the work.”
Hill was faced with mounting pressure to churn out more work; this began to conflict with her philosophy of what it meant to be an artist.
A performance of raw vulnerability
Hill arrived at her MTV Unplugged performance in July of 2001 three months pregnant, dressed casually in a denim jacket, headwrap and baseball cap, and without a band. The small crowd was unsure of what to expect as she started sing-rapping in a strained voice, accompanied only by herself playing guitar (which she had only recently learned to play). Upon the album’s release in May 2002, some praised her intimacy, raw vulnerability and frankness about her experiences since the release of “The Miseducation,” which included not only the lawsuit and public scrutiny but also the deepening of her faith. Others critiqued her cracking vocals, limited guitar skills, cryptic lyrics and drawn-out “rants” during the interludes, in which she admits to being “crazy and deranged” and “mentally unstable.”
What emerges from the hour and 46 minute recording is a modern spin on the traditional prophetic motifs of original sin, man’s depravity and God’s mercy. Her critique, which relies heavily on Scripture, begins inward, applying these themes to her own experience of “mental slavery” that is brought on by her pride and attachment to others’ opinion of her. This is the style of songs like “Freedom Time,” “I Get Out” and “Oh Jerusalem”; in the latter, she sings “limited to earth, unable to find out my worth,/ ‘cause I can’t see past my own vanity.../ Focused on the shadow, with my back turned to the light,/ too intelligent to see it’s me in the way.”
Her experience since the release of "The Miseducation" included not only the lawsuit and public scrutiny but also the deepening of her faith.
Hill then moves outward, critiquing the deceptiveness of our modern day Caesars and Herods: corporate and state power. In “The Mystery of Iniquity,” she alludes to the lawsuit over “The Miseducation,” calling out the hypocrisy of the American legal system:
Y’all can't handle the truth in a courtroom of lies,/ perjures the jurors, witness despised,/ crooked lawyers, false indictments publicized./ It’s entertainment, the arraignments, the subpoenas,/ high profile gladiators in bloodthirsty arenas…/ Souls bought and sold and paroled for thirty talents…/ File it in the system, not acknowledged by the Maker…
In the same song, she continues to unrelentingly call into question the ideals of success, freedom and the American dream:
The truth is obsolete. 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’/ ...Counterfeit wisdom/ creating the illusion of freedom./ Confusion consumes them,/ every word they speak it turns them outwardly white,/ internally they absent of light,/ trapped in the night/ and bonded to the Cain of the night.
Recalling God’s mercy, she sings: “I remember when you looked into my eyes./ You saw right through me, and I could not hide./
Hill is as harsh as John the Baptist and as vulnerable as Isaiah. She is as misunderstood and written-off by the public as the Hebrew prophets were in their times. She brings whoever is willing to listen through a journey toward the ultimate answer to our mental and spiritual slavery: that true and lasting freedom can come only from looking into the merciful gaze of Jesus himself. She proclaims this revelation in “Water” and, to the point of weeping, in “Peace of Mind.”In “I Remember,” Hill thinks fondly back to her first experience of God’s mercy, singing: “I remember when you looked into my eyes./ You saw right through me, and I could not hide./ I was exposed just like a child./ All of my heart you hold in your hands./ I’m yours to command.”
A deeper prophetic critique
When I came across “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0”as a junior in high school, I thought little of it, finding myself unable to decode Hill’s seemingly esoteric messages. It was not until beginning a graduate program in moral theology that the lyrics of “Unplugged”began to make sense to me. I listened to the album again while reading James Baldwin’s writings on Americans’ intentional “blindness” toward our own humanity and the humanity of others. I also listened while reading John Paul II’s catecheses on the theology of the body, in which he highlights the significance of the encounter between the “I” and the “Thou” (referring to the person’s relationship with both God and one’s spouse). I found that both authors’ writings aligned with Hill’s prophetic claim that we cannot attain true liberation without that first step of looking honestly both at ourselves and at Christ’s healing gaze of mercy.
Hill is as harsh as John the Baptist and as vulnerable as Isaiah.
When other artists discuss liberation and authenticity today, they are attempting to reach the ultimate goal that Hill is crying out for: personal liberation and the creation of a more just society. But most of these artists can be quick to skip the essential step of that initial encounter with Christ, which opens the door to lasting freedom and justice. It is not difficult to find musical artists and other public figures who speak out and post on the internet about social issues. Beyoncé posts on police brutality, Demi Lovato sings about mental health awareness, Cardi B hosts presidential candidates on her Instagram live story and Colin Kapernick gives witness to racial justice on the football field.
Yet Hill’s take on social issues, both in her music and in her social media presence, is unique because her understanding of justice begins on the level of being in right relationship with God and his law. When she talks about such things, she references biblical virtues like humility, honesty, chastity and piety. Hill emphasizes that real change begins at the most basic level possible: with the conversion of an individual’s heart as a result of an encounter with God, who is the ultimate source of both mercy and justice.
Most artists who discuss liberation skip the step of the encounter with Christ, which leads to lasting freedom and justice.
On the flip side of this personal conversion, Hill’s music encourages us to sharply critique social entities—governments, corporations, broad social trends—that operate at a far remove from our families, neighborhoods and local communities. The church’s principle of subsidiarity makes the same case for rooting social power, wherever appropriate, at the most local level possible. It is in these contexts, the places we live and the people we live with, that an individual’s particular needs are met or not met. The greater the distance an earthly authority or power operates from a local community, the greater the risk that that institution will use its power inadequately or violently. If they don’t know us, how can they truly serve us?
Can anyone fill her shoes?
Hill’s “Unplugged”album was variously called “a public breakdown,” “unhinged,” “unfinished” and “a sparse and often grueling listen.” She has received further criticism by critics, tabloid press and even audiences over the years for her tardiness to performances, tax evasion and demands to be called “Ms.” Lauryn Hill. She even did three months in federal prison for her failure to pay taxes. Her description of herself as “crazy and deranged” and “mentally unstable” may indeed hint at her actual struggles with mental health. It also evokes the image of the prophet or mystic breaking down in recognition of her helplessness before the divine. This raises the question of whether we can draw a clear line between divine encounter and human fragility. It should also caution us not to glorify or spiritualize mental breakdowns.
Her performances evokes the prophet or mystic breaking down in helplessness before the divine.
But to reduce her unorthodox persona and art merely to mental instability would be a grave error. Her analysis of corporate and state corruption in her “Unplugged” album and elsewhere is sharp, nuanced and uncompromising. Hill’s vision for women, people of color and, more broadly, for all of humanity transcends narratives that see individual autonomy and temporal well-being as the summit of liberation.
Lately, Hill has attempted to offer a practical application of her vision of social change through her “Community MLH” project, which aims to promote local-level grassroots community initiatives that strive to create policies that uplift lower income communities and foster dialogue between law enforcement and civilians.
Is there space for other prophetic figures like Hill in the mainstream industry today? Figures like Kanye West seem to be attempting to do so; he hinted at how Hill has inspired him in a recent interview. But the fact that West has such close ties with the very establishment figures that an artist’s voice might critique—record label executives, CEO’s of fashion and tech companies, questionable politicians—compromises the credibility of his voice. More important, is there space for other Black female rappers to provide young girls of color a substantial vision of liberation? Are we ready for an artistic narrative that runs deeper than the conventional sexual liberation narrative, or the latest social protest that, while meaningful and deeply felt, can also turn into another “cause of the day” to be dropped as quickly as it is brought up?
We are still waiting for a figure of Hill’s caliber whose artistry can provoke listeners to discover the truth of their identity in God and to provide them the tools to substantially critique the institutional and spiritual powers that be. Besides Kanye West, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar come to mind as two artists trying to operate in the same arena, but neither approaches Hill on the level of prophetic narrative or artistic ability.
Mainstream musicians whose art dwells on temporary fulfillment or champions less substantial narratives of justice and liberation, ultimately leave us in the hands of worldly powers. Their work leaves us asking along with King David, “How long, oh Lord?” until we find another musical prophet like Ms. Hill.