At first it seemed that Lauryn Hill had gone crazy.
The charismatic, much-lauded hip-hop and R&B singer-songwriter appeared on a virtually barren stage at the Classic Center Theatre in Athens last Saturday, seated on a nondescript chair.
On her lap rested an acoustic guitar. The once-stylish singer wore a baseball cap over what looked like a close-cropped ‘fro, a simple pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, a jacket and a shawl.
Meet the new Lauryn Hill, the one you’ll see performing an acoustic set of entirely new songs during her “Unplugged” special, airing on MTV2 at 8 p.m. Saturday and on MTV on April 19. (An album of the concert will be released April 30.) The concert and the special make up a raw, often difficult, thoroughly inspiring portrait of a gifted young woman trying to snatch her life back from the clutches of celebrity.
“This is the first time y’all are meeting me,” she says on MTV, to underscore the point. “Don’t think that you met me before.”
Though Hill achieved multiplatinum success with her group the Fugees, her 8 million-selling 1998 album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” made her the face of “The Hip-Hop Nation,” as Time magazine once proclaimed on its cover. “Miseducation’s” textured, satisfying blend of Motown, ’70s soul, reggae and rap won five Grammy Awards, becoming one of the most heavily praised albums of the decade.
Then Hill dropped out of sight. There were whispers that she was having a nervous breakdown. R&B queen Mary J. Blige once asked a concert audience to pray for Hill.
The “Unplugged” special, which Hill taped last July, will give most people their first peek at her new image and frame of mind.
Her performance on the show, as well as at the Athens concert last weekend, is powerful not only because it shows a musician openly grappling with deeply personal issues, but also because it raises profound ethical questions about the nature of celebrity: What it is exactly that we’re buying and the toll it takes on those doing the selling.
At the Athens show, Hill obliterated her public persona as a having-it-all superwoman able to effortlessly juggle work, romance and motherhood. Most wrenchingly, she explained that she was long ambivalent about being a mother and even disavowed her popular tribute to her son, “To Zion,” which she performed at the 1999 Grammys.
“How dare I make merchandise out of my children [when] I didn’t want them to be here?” asked the mother of three, who now takes a more hands-on role in raising her brood.
She’s honest in other ways as well, reconciling troubling aspects of her previous image. Her former persona was racked with contradictions and hypocrisy. She chastised scantily clad young women but appeared on magazine covers in booty shorts. She spouted Christian rhetoric with dogmatic fervor but had two children out of wedlock and admitted to an extended affair with a married man, former Fugee Wyclef Jean. Now she practices what she preaches. She dresses as down as she seems to expect others to do and, as she revealed in Athens, she’s now married to the father of her children.
Hill is asking something important: Can music exist today without an accompanying heavily constructed, mass-appeal image? And she may be on to something. Though Hill’s transformation has older precedents — Bob Dylan going electric, Al Green’s spiritual conversion, Neil Young’s musical unpredictability — it also speaks to the profound disaffection with the music industry that many artists are experiencing.
The Recording Artists Coalition is directly challenging record companies’ control of artists’ careers; the industry is facing a sobering sales decline and the challenge of new technologies; and artists who still look to the music industry’s promises of renown and riches are reaping less than ever before, as Mariah Carey can perhaps tell you.
That’s why it’s so inspiring that Hill seems instinctually, almost primally, driven to put the focus back on the tunes.
And the new songs are transcendent. There is a remarkably moving love song that opens with the words “I gotta find peace of mind.” During the MTV special, Hill sobs heavily during this performance, as she follows a journey from a relationship defined by pain and dishonesty to one based on unconditional love and trust.
She also seems to be acting as humble as her songs profess. Her entourage in Athens consisted of two production people and a friend. Her only personal requests were for baby powder (for her guitar-playing hands), towels, hot tea, fruit, water and cranberry juice.
Hill is throwing the entire music industry playbook out the window. She shed her management, and her record label is unaware of her current guerrilla touring schedule. In Athens, she didn’t even mention “Unplugged” or her new album.
And all this from a woman who many people, including this writer, thought was crazy.
More performers should be so nuts. She’s trying to find out who she is, a visibly painful process, but because of it she’s an even more interesting and promising artist — one with an enormous potential to transform the music business.
A lyric from one of her new songs sums up the possibilities of her defiant yet low-key new stance: “What you see is what you get, / And you ain’t seen nothing yet.”