Strummin' Her Pain with her Fingers

Nearer my God to thee: Lauryn Hill
Scott Gries/Image Direct

MTV Unplugged, Lauryn Hill's searing self-reflection, Messianic zealotry, and raw emotional vibrance has, if anything, grown more forceful and profound. That's the message Hill delivered, chapter and verse, during the course of her two-hour, mostly solo acoustic show at Carnegie Hall in New York City a few weeks ago. She took command of the most august venue in the nation's largest market, captivating a sold-out crowd (tickets were being scalped at twice their face value) through her willfully spontaneous, idiosyncratic showcase. After such a performance, one wonders how, or if, she will negotiate being one of many acts on the bill of the hedonistically commercial Smokin' Grooves tour that moves through Minneapolis Thursday, July 25.

For those in need of a context check, a quick update: The Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, lilting warbler of "Killing Me Softly," ringmistress of "Fu-Gee-La," has been banished to the dunce's corner in Hill's memory bank. Ditto for the songstress behind the presciently titled The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, who showed signs of awakening to her moral turmoil, but is now regarded by Hill as having been a pliable minstrel in the corporate-pop circus. Subsequent work on a series of tributes to reggae's Rastafarian demigod, Bob Marley, made it impossible for Hill to ignore the chasm between her career persona and her need for spiritual succor. After a prolonged, obviously harrowing identity crisis, the break came sometime in the past year, when, as Hill told her MTV audience, "God snatched me out of everything."

Despite the centrality of religion in Hill's radical metamorphosis, her current work is less kindred to the Bible-thumping transformation of Bob Dylan (let alone Mase's disappearing act or the dilettantish dabblings of Prince or Madonna) than to the acerbic, primal-therapeutic lash-backs of John Lennon after he left the Beatles. Indeed, the most Jesus-inspired aspect of Hill's new songs and equally significant between-song narratives is their flagrant martyrdom. At Carnegie Hall she spoke of "the warfare against me," and was scathing in her criticism of record-company executives who threatened that her current course represents career suicide. "When you reveal your insides, you forget you are vulnerable and you don't think the enemy is real," she said. Describing herself as "running from church to church and psychoanalyst to psychoanalyst," she added, "I got help. And people got furious. Because they liked that victim Lauryn. And they didn't like me saying, 'Don't turn this dwelling place for the Lord into a den of thieves.' So I took some lighter fluid and a match and burned everything I had built."

Having thrust her career toward the point of no return, Hill wields her vulnerability like a cudgel. After she strolled onstage to hearty, sustained applause, her first words to the Carnegie audience were, "I didn't know if I'd be coming out to a happy bunch or a lynch mob." In fact, Hill needs to feel like the world is against her right now. The strength to complete her painful transformation is derived from a sense that "reality" is being continually thwarted and perverted by "the system." As she forecloses any backsliding options, she's demanding that even her die-hard fans choose a side in this crude divide.

But that doesn't mean we have to do so. We can applaud the grit and sympathize with the struggle of a performer who has produced the most passionately creative political rap of the year (the anti-lawyer rant "Mystery of Iniquity") while acknowledging that her new material could benefit from a little editing. We can forgive this class warrior the contradiction of summoning a stagehand to pass her a nearby bottle of water and, later, move her footstool a few inches, without pretending it didn't happen. And we can yearn for that marvelously supple voice to again wrap itself around "Killing Me Softly," "Ex-Factor," or "Doo Wop (That Thing)" sometime in the future without feeling like a traitor to the cause.

Meanwhile, pushing herself to the point of tears in concert, Hill brilliantly continues to work things out. At Carnegie Hall, she unveiled a brand-new tune based on the classic spiritual "Motherless Child." But instead of "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," she sang, "Sometimes I feel like robbing a church/When you know that people are dying/When you know that preachers are lying/When you know that children are crying."

Inevitably, the pain and the passion will abate somewhat. Until then, the worst thing Hill can encounter is not resistance, but indifference. How will it go onstage at Smokin' Grooves, when blunted b-boy wannabes start hollering for Hill to hurry up so they can start funkin' with Outkast? At Carnegie Hall, Hill said her fidelity to God provides her with the tenacity to surmount any circumstance. We'll see.

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