Happy 15th Anniversary to Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, originally released May 7, 2002.
When the quintessential artist of the ‘90s delivered her first offering of new material early into the first quarter of the next decade, everyone stopped to listen. Not knowing what to expect from the casually dressed icon, who accessorized her denim with an acoustic guitar for the MTV Unplugged No 2.0 concert which became a full-length live album, fans of Lauryn Hill’s previous work pulled in close, wanting to be among the first to witness her next stroke of genius.
After selling an unbelievable volume of records and igniting a frenzy comparable to the ‘60s’ Beatlemania, the super emcee slash incredible songstress-actress-songwriter had amassed a body of work already putting her in the conversation of musical elite. Having created magic twice—first as one third of Fugees, adding high level lyricism and mind boggling harmony to their 1996 album The Score, and next with her colossal 1998 solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—L-Boogie raised the bar musically for all of her contemporaries. Moreover, she elevated the music world’s consciousness, serving as a major counter balance to the overtly sexualized and often superficial songs dominating hip-hop and R&B airways in the late ‘90s.
Her return was highly anticipated in light of the nearly three-year sabbatical she took following the 41st Annual Grammy Awards ceremony in early 1999, where she picked up a record-breaking five trophies in multiple categories, while coming close to running the table at other award ceremonies that year. Indeed, loyalists waited intently for another dose of Hill’s special brand of edutainment and were understandably eager to gain more insight from the current generation’s songwriting equivalent of Bob Dylan.
From the onset, Hill set the tone of the July 21, 2001 Unplugged performance at MTV Studios in Manhattan with a slight awkwardness. She prefaced her set by confiding to the live audience that she no longer gets fancied up for her performances, offering the disclaimer that we were about to witness a performance perhaps as flawed as brilliant. Once she finished laying the ground rules for her performance, her raspy vocals finally set in over the acoustic guitar chords of a song entitled “Mr. Intentional.” Seconds into the song, it’s clear that her vocals at the time were not as clean as they were for her gospel duet “His Eye is on the Sparrow” alongside Tanya Blount when she stole the show in the film Sister Act 2 and its accompanying soundtrack almost a decade earlier.
Interesting nonetheless, the opening song draws multiple applause from the crowd and proved impressive for all who laid witness to the multi-talented phenomenon, whose resume already transcended genres, as she continued to check off boxes on her journey toward full musical mastery. Her newfound folksiness appeared to be an interesting complement to her potent lyrics, which were still a tad screechy throughout the first song.
Progressing past what should have been enough of a vocal warmup, Hill introduces the next song “Adam Lives in Theory,” a dramatic narrative of sexual exploits that she delivers while seeming to painfully suppress becoming emotionally overwhelmed. By the final verse, her audience is left breathless and uncertain if the entire song is a metaphor for being too compromising with one’s artistic integrity or an actual cautionary tale against sexual exploration.
Personally excited about the possibilities of where Hill could take a song with a religious title, “Oh Jerusalem”, I finally accepted that this was going to be a totally different experience with an artist I fell in love with early into 1994. I also conceded that I was not going to hear the soaring vocals that echoed out of my stereo speakers when I blasted “To Zion” four years earlier. Instead, this may be something more special, akin to taking a seat at the fireplace of the Hill residence, where everyone else became nonexistent, and I felt as if I were on hand for the development process of a genius at work.
“War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” satisfies as the sequel to Miseducation’s “Final Hour” as Hill leverages her rapid delivery, wasting no bars in critiquing all possible contributors to the social ills she has grown increasingly frustrated with, having to witness the expansion of economic and opportunity disparities: “Intelligent fools / PhD’s an illusion / Masters of mass confusion / Bachelors in past delusion / Now who you choosin'?” This brief return to the L-Boogie of “Nappy Heads” proved that male or female, no emcee on the planet was eager to step into the ring to square off against her, as the Jersey girl proved she could more than hold her own in a cipher, while incredibly still maintaining substantive content.
“I Find it Hard to Say” along with its introduction really tugs at the heartstrings even 15 years later, as she explains that the song was written while the city of New York and entire nation grieved the death of the unarmed Amadou Diallo, who was shot multiple times by NYPD officers in a controversial case of mistaken identity. The moving tribute sadly serves as a fitting soundtrack to the persistence of such tragedies like the recent shooting death of Jordan Edwards and others.
The album, which I purchased as a double CD on its original release date back in 2002, moves along into the second disc where Hill offers an 11-minute sermonette that explores her new perspective and approach to her artistry. Maintaining your interest, she both quotes and offers her interpretation of bible scripture, while sharing personal testimony that explains some of her creative thought process. This songwriting recipe based mainly on her daily observations made her a premier songwriter in high demand, coining hits not only for herself, but penning the female empowerment anthem for none other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin’s “A Rose is Still a Rose” back in 1998.
“Mystery of Iniquity” is widely acknowledged as the highlight of the entire performance, as her lyricism returns to the strength of “How Many Mics” from the Score LP, in her unparalleled summation of the problems within the American judicial system: “Legal actors / Babylon's benefactors / masquerading as the agency for the clients / hypocritical giants /morally non-compliant / orally armed / to do bodily harm / polluted, recruited and suited judicial charm.” This all-out verbal onslaught gives the audience no time to react between bars, as she connects words you never thought rhymed with each other and questions everything you were taught to believe in. “Everything is Everything” was certainly not a fluke as we witnessed live on stage, the results of her years honing her skills growing up in South Orange, New Jersey while studying flow, delivery and sentence structure perfected by hip-hop giants like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap, as well as skilled soul performers like Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight.
A student of ‘80s hip-hop along with the soulful R&B of the ‘70s, Hill had entered her post-grad studies of international music with her connection to the first family of Reggae, through her relationship with Rohan Marley which produced several children. She explained how Rohan’s brother Ziggy inspired the next song on the track list, “I Get Out.” Missing a note during her conveyance makes for a moment of levity during the at-times somber concert full of very heavy content by a noticeably turbulent soloist.
Wrapping up this complete tour through the beautiful mind of a beloved artist, she bellowed out her gospel infused remake of Bob Marley’s “So Much to Say,” before again taking us into the hills of Jamaica where Rohan’s father studied at the feet of Rastafarian sages, to deliver “The Conquering Lion.” A battle cry of victory that closes the album on a positive note, the song leaves you with the impression that Hill is still rooted with a strong spiritual base, which could very well inspire another classic studio album somewhere in the works.
Unfortunately, 15 years later we have never received another full album from the woman who helped shape many of our young adult years. So we are forced to settle instead for glimpses of her glory years, that surface among random appearances on soundtracks and sometimes troubling live performances.
The impact of this album alone would later be evident, spawning remakes and interpolations by Kanye West and Method Man, and no doubt influencing a new generation of artists including Alicia Keys and Jazmine Sullivan.
Perhaps emblematic of the earliest signs of the internal turmoil in which she has sadly yet to fully recover, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 is one of the most unique albums ever captured on tape. One that points straight into the soul of this once-in-a-lifetime artist in raw form, exposing both the brilliance that we fell in love with when we first heard her voice and the fragility of the human spirit.