I don’t like to write letters to people who may never see them, and I fear that the practice lingers near insanity—kinda like talking to people who don’t exist. Still, sometimes it’s comforting to talk to imaginary friends, particularly when you feel like your fellow humans will misunderstand.
I couldn’t write a review about your latest project, sis. I don’t understand where you’re coming from, and I don’t know that anyone could. “Fantasy,” you said on this latest outpouring, “is what people want. Reality is what they need.” Well, the realities are pretty telling, even as you explain where you are: You were the first female emcee to get five Grammys for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It seemed, when you first appeared on the hip-hop radar in the mid-90s, that you were the first happy medium between the hardcore female rapper (think Boss or MC Lyte) and the sexpot Lil’ Kims or Foxy Browns. You could sing well, rhyme even better, and you weren’t taking off your clothes or rhyming about sexual conquests. You were simply an intelligent female emcee, inspirational just by being who you were. Now, you’re saying that was all a lie and you were pretending the whole time. You were dishonest, you were a shell of a human being. Well, damn.
Sure, I was a bit disappointed that you weren’t dropping verses like you did on The Score, but I understood. You had had babies, you were loving Rohan Marley and rebuking the spotlight, even as it flooded into your bed and your heart and your decisions. No wonder you basically disappeared for nearly six years. It must have been hard to deal with the copyright scandal that erupted after your musical achievement; it was probably trying to be all that you had to be to your new family while maintaining the unofficial title of the greatest female lyricist of our time, certainly, and arguably, the greatest of all time.
First the world loved you for rejecting the pretenses that the media and your fan base must have put on you. You did that unassumingly, that was just your way—to be real. Yes, you had done some acting (good, solid acting, no less) but you were a musician first. Sure, you had to part ways with the Fugee cohorts—but that drama was aired out in “Lost Ones”. Now you are casting off all pretentiousness, but the way you’ve done it is unfair and pretentious in and of itself.
Heartbreak poured out on two CDs. You, strumming your guitar and spitting pseudo-spoken word with crackling chords. You don’t hit every note perfectly, but in songs like “Mr. Intentional”, you are very clear. You are still an incredible lyricist, perhaps the best of our generation so far. Even if you are cryptic (you admit that, at least on this latest effort) you are at least talented to make up for some of the pedagogy and peachiness that falls from your lips. You say yourself that you have no identity on “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind”. You say that you’ve done a lot of dying, and that you need your mind to be free. “You say it’s impossible / But I know it’s tangible”, you weep into your microphone. Well, I’m sad to see you go through this. But Alice put it best: The way forward is with a broken heart.
You can’t tell people how to get through their pain. But there is a clear difference between sharing and dumping. You dumped out your dirty laundry for the world to see, calling yourself a mad scientist who tests out her experiments on herself first. “Don’t think you’ve met me before. I’m just getting to know me. Everything that’s not growing is dead,” you say. There is so much resentment for your audience in your tone that it’s difficult to understand who the “new” you is. Aside from that, you seem stubbornly against the fact that this latest experiment will flop. Not because the world is not ready for truth, not because the troubling aspects of fame can’t be translated. But because even as icons throughout history have been disgruntled with losing their private lives to an adoring and expectant public, they have used music as a catalyst to explore that terrain. But not by singing through pages of their journals.
Obviously, you are not the same woman who blasted through verses on The Score . You are not the same Lauryn from Miseducation and I don’t know that anyone expected you to be. But lambasting worldly things and proclaiming a new righteousness doesn’t make for easy listening or compelling work. Most importantly, Lauryn, it isn’t any indication of your growth. Technically, a lot of the singing on MTV Unplugged 2.0 is shoddy. The music is boring. But this effort is not about being a folk singer or offering strong, complete songs as much as it is about offering an isolating purging session. Even as you spit an incredibly complex verse on the “The Mystery of Iniquity”: “Smearing the individual / Fearing the unsuspected . . . / Blinder than the blind . . . a generation pure in it’s own mind / The truth is obsolete / Mafia with diplomas / Keeping us in a coma / Trying to get a piece of the American Corona” the main thing missing here is revision. Completion. Balance. Your delivery is on point, breathless though it is. But it’s easy to see that you could have said everything you wanted to say—that you don’t want to be the media or hip-hop darling anymore, that you want to bare your soul completely without fear of repercussion or judgment—in one song. Maybe two. But not dozens.
I’m mourning the death of the celebrity darling L. Boogie, who had the power to unleash a glossier side of her soul in pure verses of genius. You were succinct, on point and on purpose. That persona didn’t work for you, but this Oprah-like “Remember your spirit” sermon that goes on for hours will not work for you either. I’m glad you are free, even as you embrace a mild case of insanity. Everyone needs to air their demons at some point. But they only start to heal when they give light to their angels. Not everything is meant for the world to understand, but the path to comprehension can be smoother than this album. “Music was my love, but because of all the stuff I thought I needed to accompany my music, it became my burden.” I can only say, as a fan of the many women inside of Lauryn Hill, that you fall in love with music again. Maybe it’ll help you to write more about what is right with people and the world and humanity than mulling over everything that’s gone wrong. Most likely, it’ll bring you back to the true fans of your work—not your life, not your mistakes, not your flaws, but your artistry. I can’t presume to tell you how to make good music—but understand: tears and guitar licks will earn you pity for a few songs, especially if the music is not good.
“Life is supposed to be a pleasurable thing. The more I acquired, the more I realized I was a prisoner.” Maybe you were too sensitive and soft to be the artist you wanted to be. It is clear that you were destined for fame, but that doesn’t mean you were prepared for celebrity. Since when is a relationship “emotional warfare”, L? So you’re defying categorization with “I Get Out”, the song inspired by Ziggy. Do you care if the audience understands you? Probably not. Nor should you. True artists always feel misunderstood: Oscar Wilde did, Joni Mitchell did, Michael Jackson always will—every great artist feels like they are above their public, that there is a space in celebrity land that regular humans can never comprehend. “I won’t support your lie no more / I won’t even try no more / I just don’t sympathize anymore . . . No more compromises / I see past your disguises . . . / Stealing my eternal soul . . . / I Get Out of all your boxes.” Yes, Lauryn. You’ve gotten out of all the boxes and you don’t care if we’re upset by your growth, your change and your torment. Sometimes, it makes for good music. But this time, with sloppy guitar strums and countless personal pedantic soundbytes, you make it impossible for your fans to hear where you’re coming from, totally. The audience is so busy listening to your parables and analyzing your vigilant affirmation of life that they are misled by the fact that you haven’t said anything new. If you are getting out of the box, where are you headed? If you are not a part of this Babylon, where is your space? What makes you happy? Where is your soul, now? As you sing in “Adams Lives in Theory” (perhaps the best song on these two CDs): “So tell me, what, what we gonna do now?”
// Notes from the Road
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