No room for compromise

On paper, it looks like a really insane move.

Follow up one of the most successful solo debuts with a live recording? Taped by MTV? With nothing but a guitar as accompaniment?

But half way through her MTV Unplugged performance, Lauryn Hill even acknowledges to her audience that she was duped into thinking she needed a “20-piece backing band”. She didn’t, as evidenced on the two-disc recording of that broadcast.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill’s 1998 watershed album, was such a lush recording, it whetted the appetite for more of the same. When news spread that MTV Unplugged 2.0 would be that album’s follow-up, it was hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment.

Would a literally unplugged Lauryn Hill really live up to her own previous, award-winning work? She does. Quite marvelously, too.

Hill recognizes her talent is in lyrics. She’s not a melodicist aiming to nail the perfect hook.

In fact, Hill’s guitar playing on the album is quite minimal — four chords are about as far as she goes.

Rather, Hill’s concern is with telling a story, painting a setting and letting her first-person characters reveal the inner-workings of their minds.

On “Adam Lives in Theory”, Hill casts Adam and Eve in an urban tale of parental responsibility. “Mr. Intentional” addresses a sweet-talking devil-figure who’s good intentions lead to bad results.

Even without Hill’s between-song explanations, many of these new songs have some pretty apparent autobiographical sources.

Hill slings a lot of legal language typical for a Law and Order episode on “Mystery of Iniquity”. The singer was embroiled in a highly-publicized lawsuit with a producer who wanted songwriting credits for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

“I Got to Find Piece of Mind” speaks to an unnamed love in Hill’s life who has such a profound affect on her, she breaks into tears at the end of the song. It’s clearly the crux of the album.

Hill’s stage banter is almost as illuminating as her songs. She bends over backward to convince her audience her fears aren’t any more significant or special than theirs. Hill might seem to protest a bit too much, but there’s a conviction in her voice that’s enough to show a listener she’s not faking it.

The longest track on the album is a 12-minute interlude.

In a way, Hill shares with Sinéad O’Connor a frank candor and deep sense of spirituality that comes across well in music. Hill probably won’t be joining any dissident priesthoods anytime soon, but she can make even the most recovered Catholic empathize with her rants against “the Enemy”.

Perhaps MTV Unplugged 2.0 works best because it’s a modest album with huge ambitions. The average length of these songs is 8 minutes.

Hill’s stripped-down performance may not be the sequel to Miseducation fans would love to hear, and that’s a good thing.

By asserting such a bold creative move, Hill underscores the basic theme of this latest batch of songs — she won’t back down from her vision despite what anyone expects from her.