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Songs In The Key Of Strife

Lauryn Hill has been to the edge, and lived to talk about it. And talk about it. And talk about it. Her new live album, her first offering in four years, isn't quite two hours long, and nearly 30 minutes of it is devoted to intense, rambling monologues about God and the Enemy, about repression and self-deception, about a fame-induced breakdown and a rebirth. "I really don't consider myself a performer so much anymore," she tells the crowd. "I'm sharing... the music I've been given, but if I stop, if I start, if I, you know, feel like saying baby, baby, baby for 18 bars or whatever, I do that. All right. So you guys are cool?" Hill pauses. "I'm talking to the people in my head, too," she says. She's wearing an earpiece, and referring to the folks in the control room. I think.

Hill is the most promising singer and songwriter of her generation, and there are some amazingly lovely moments on "MTV Unplugged No. 2.0." Unfortunately, there are many more when she sounds not just unplugged but unhinged. Hill says she's sworn off self-censorship. Still, she should never have released this album as an unedited double CD, not just because of its talkiness--the song intros are given their own tracks, presumably so you can program them out--but also because many of the new tunes feel blurry, unfinished, rushed into being.

In spirit, if not style, "Unplugged" is a reggae album obsessed with healing and rebellion. Hill plays solo, often just strumming dull bar chords. But her voice, even raspy, sounds gorgeous. "Just Want You Around" is a pure, perfect song lit up with nimble finger-picking. "I Get Out" is an electrifying track about defying expectations. And "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind"--which Hill sang to her husband with tears sliding down her face on TV--seems so honest that it is as if Hill is writing it on the spot. It's a shame these songs are buried among half-baked tunes and awkward speechifying. "Unplugged" is the sort of album everyone calls "brave," then listens to twice a year--it's more interesting as an artifact than as art. Can you ask for more from a singer than that she bare every inch of her soul? Maybe not. But you can ask for less.

Lauryn Hill'MTV Unplugged No. 2.0'
Columbia