Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged 2.0 album was a body of work that arrived far ahead of its time. Sixteen years ago, fans expected the multi-hyphenate superstar to kick in the door with a dynamic follow up to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. The record-shattering album racked up an astonishing five Grammys (unheard of for a female artist both black and raised by hip-hop). After vanishing from the spotlight for roughly three years, Hill’s return to the stage went completely against the grain. Taking to the MTV set in a baseball cap, gold hoops, and her trusty guitar, Hill bared her soul and unveiled her truth in front of an intimate and captive audience. In an interlude preceding the song “Adam Lives In Theory,” Hill succinctly explains the reason behind her transformation both sonically and spiritually: “Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. And I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.”
People who expected another batch of radio-friendly bops with catchy hooks like those on “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Ex-Factor” weren’t appreciative of her new mission. Unplugged 2.0 was a cathartic outpouring of truth signifying the singer’s rebirth. Her reward for being so open turned out to be a wave of scathing reviews and speculation about her suspected unraveling. The picture painted was that of a forlorn rap/songstress with limitless talent crushed under fame’s weight. There were whisperings that the then-mother of two had been led astray by a shady spiritual adviser while also grappling with a toxic marriage to Rohan Marley. Some of these probes into her private life are vaguely addressed in the music that critics found too solemn and “preachy” to take seriously. It wasn’t until years later that the industry would unearth Hill’s Unplugged album from beneath the controversy and come to appraise it as a rarely eulogized gem.
Unplugged 2.0 never had to grow on me. Hill and I were connected in our longing to break through the noise and find our rightful place in the world. She was 27 and I was 14 in the spring of 2002. Hip-pop acts like Ashanti and Nelly weren’t speaking to me. Hill’s pain echoed through her prickly guitar chords and crackling vocals mirrored mine. Being black in a predominantly white school, being bullied, and struggling with depression, I found solace and hope for the future in songs like “I Get Out.”
“I get out, I’ll get out of all your boxes / I get out, you can’t hold me in these chains / I’ll get out, Father free me from this bondage / Knowin’ my condition is the reason I must change” – “I Get Out”
Although Hill and I were dealing with two completely different conflicts, the man described on “Mr. Intentional” sounded like a father who happened to disappoint an angsty teenager with his absence.
“Please don’t do me any favors, Mr. Intentional.”
There was also something foretelling in songs like “The Mystery of Iniquity” and “Freedom Time.” Hill had been in the spotlight since childhood – starting with a rough performance at The Apollo, snagging a major role in Sister Act 2 (1993) and landing commercial success with her East Orange, New Jersey friends known to the masses as The Fugees. It’s clear that accomplishing all that she had up until that point required much masquerading that she just couldn’t muster anymore: A polished, propped up version of hip-hop’s Joan of Arc. Critics who claimed to love the “liberation” and “honesty” of Miseducation suddenly jumped ship when her truth became too real, too unorthodox. Unplugged 2.0 meddled with everything we were conditioned to believe. As a complete body of work, it sharply and intentionally steered Hill away from the pretenses of mainstream media that kept her shackled and ushered her into a higher calling.
“His word is nailed, everything to the tree / Severing all of me / From all I used to be” – “Freedom Time”
When she was 1/3 of The Fugees, the world saw Hill as an artist with promise. As a solo act, she was mystifying and seemingly unstoppable. Hill carved out a very special place for herself in the stubbornly sexist genre of hip-hop. Her pen game was also a force to be reckoned with, proven by hits like “A Rose Is Still A Rose” which she wrote for soul legend Aretha Franklin.
Her technical prowess only advanced with Unplugged, learning how to play guitar in only a year’s time. Hill unpacked deep themes and universal truths that even the most lived of us have trouble grasping. But even in the midst of Hill’s elevated sense of self, the media relegated her to the “crazy” category as they did with other stars who defied mega-stardom like Nina Simone and Dave Chappelle.
Critics who claimed to love the “liberation” and “honesty” of Miseducation suddenly jumped ship when her truth became too real, too unorthodox.
To a young black girl trapped in suburbia, I interpreted Hill’s Unplugged 2.0 as a cautionary tale about the price we pay for living free. And like clockwork, society proved her right. At times, it seemed blatantly obvious that people forgot about Hill: the mother, the wife, the woman. The dramatic affairs of her life were no secret at the time. Frankly, even if we knew the full truth of it all, could we truly relate? Few know first-hand what it’s like to be famous – standing at the pinnacle of success and realizing it’s more excruciating than the struggle at the bottom.
If you consider money, fame, material gain, and radio spins as forms of success, then Unplugged could rightly be considered a flop. But if you value truth, enlightenment and freedom life’s ultimate luxuries, then bump this forgotten gem today for old time’s sake.