Music

Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged 2.0

J. Victoria Sanders

Lauryn Hill

MTV Unplugged 2.0

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2002-05-07
UK Release Date: 2002-05-06
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Lauryn:

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?"

Respectfully yours,

J.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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