Hip Hop, Psalms, and Lamentations

"Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. And I've just retired from the fantasy part," says Lauryn Hill in the way only divas can on her new album MTV Unplugged 2.0, released in May. It's been a while since we've heard so much as a peep out of the 27-year-old hip-hop queen, but in that time Hill's been intoxicated with the gospel. Most fans are surprised to unwrap a double-disc album that plays more like a four-hour sermon, with 13 new songs and nine preachy interludes.

Bold as the disciples after Pentecost, Hill's sophomore solo album is more akin to a poetry slam of her life testimony than any pop, hip-hop, rap, or reggae hit she's had in the past. If South Orange, New Jersey—where Hill grew up—is the New Jerusalem, then she is the New David, plucking out lamentations and psalms on her postmodern lute.

While the Grammy Award-winning The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill made her a superstar, she's less self-righteous in Unplugged, more confessional and painfully personal. Unplugged is so raw, so humble, so honest you feel like you can't make eye contact with anyone in the room because she's rapping to you from her diary. Recorded last summer in front of a small studio audience, Hill shares jokes and technical mistakes, sheds tears, and bares her soul.

UNPLUGGED IS ALL about getting free, free of her public image. "It's a new day," she says. "I used to be a performer. I really don't consider myself a performer anymore. I'm sharing, more or less, the music that I've been given." Burned out from world tours, motherhood, and fund raising for her nonprofit organization, Hill titles her tracks "Freedom Time," "I Get Out," and "I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind," in which she emotionally breaks down. She gives her own creation account of Genesis 2 in "Adam Lives in Theory" and ends with a praise and worship lullaby "The Conquering Lion." Hill raps a mean tirade against the criminal justice system in the "Mystery of Iniquity" that will guilt you into writing your senator. On "I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel)," she sings a ballad about Amadou Diallo, the West African immigrant murdered in New York City in 1999 by 41 NYPD bullets.

Musically speaking, Hill has gone where no artist has gone before. This isn't just new material, a new style, or a new genre: This is anarchy. The irony that it is produced by MTV is enough to make any globalization critic twitch, but perhaps it is a radical message to record companies. Unplugged isn't cutting edge, it's groundbreaking, root-pulling organic. Hill's come undone and done it well.

Bethany Versluis works in reception and member services at Sojourners.

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