Unplugged and Unglued

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Has Lauryn Hill lost it? Hill became an instant superstar with the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998. She won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and sold 12 million records, but ever since she has been cruising on fame's dark side. First, she was sued by members of her band who demanded Miseducation production credits. Then she disappeared from the spotlight, sparking persistent rumors that had her fighting with her former band mates in the Fugees, becoming an Evangelical Christian or dealing with serious marital problems. Hill has not done a lengthy interview in two years. All she has admitted publicly is that she underwent a paralyzing identity crisis brought on by the trappings and temptations of fame.

While Hill struggled to find herself, her record label, Sony, tapped its corporate toe, waiting for new music. It can't be thrilled with what it finally got. MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a rambling two-disc set of new material recorded last July for the MTV series, is surely the strangest second album ever released by a major pop star. For starters, it's already almost a year old, leaving fans to wonder whether the songs represent the best of what Hill can do or merely the best of what Sony has. Then there's Hill's approach. Musically, it's just her strumming an acoustic guitar; thematically, she's equally alone. "Every single one of these songs is about me first," she says defiantly during one of Unplugged's many spoken interludes. Any songwriter worth listening to writes from personal experience, but most also write to reach out. Here Hill seems intent only on purging.

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Hill is talented enough, however, to make her purges kind of interesting. Oh Jerusalem, a song that, like most of Unplugged's other tracks, mixes biblical imagery with self-dread and confusion, deals eloquently with the well-worn theme of struggling with fame. "Naked as the day that I was born," she sings, "I tried to hide, behind education and philosophy/ Hopeless explanation to describe a situation, I can't see because the world's on top of me." Hill lifts her game while beating herself down. At the end of the first disc, on the standout I Gotta Find Peace of Mind, she sings, "Please don't be mad with me, I have no identity/All that I've known is gone, all I was building on." Then she breaks down in tears.

Unplugged aired on mtv in April, and it made for compelling viewing. But it's a mess on a stereo. It's not uninteresting to listen to a star--a woman who was both audacious and vulnerable on Miseducation but always in control--lose it. When she cries out in that rangy, beautiful voice, you can't help feeling for her. But, ultimately, Unplugged's thrills are only voyeuristic. Hill seems to know this; she's so unsure about whether these songs will be meaningful to a broader audience that she sets up almost every one of them with a lengthy introduction. The second disc begins with 12 minutes of uninterrupted talking. "I want to introduce you to me," she says. "I'm just getting to know me." Later she adds, "The money's not changing me. God is changing me." Unplugged is an emotional experience, but mostly just for Lauryn Hill.