My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
When Kanye West recently used the ranting-at-the-audience portion of his show to praise Donald Trump, criticize Beyoncé, and brood darkly about his relationship with Jay Z, he seemed to be channeling Lauryn Hill. In her career-killing MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 performance, Hill used the power that comes with having released one of the biggest debuts of all time to hold the studio audience hostage. She spoke, and spoke, and then spoke some more about the emotional turmoil she was experiencing and the spiritual epiphanies that ensued.
For both West and Hill, this was no mere stage banter. They set out to break through the barrier between performer and audience and communicate with the public on an unrehearsed and intimate level that has historically made audiences feel less flattered than uncomfortable. People generally come to shows to have fun and listen to songs they love, not wade into the murky waters of a troubled musical genius’ brooding psyche.
Even before West decided to piss off the few people not already mad at him by praising Trump, the “Kanye rants” portion of his concerts were easily the least-loved element of his shows. West’s verbal vamping is reluctantly tolerated, not so much embraced, and Hill’s compulsion to talk when the world wants her to sing, or rap, or do anything other than deliver a monologue has done her own career seemingly irreparable damage. Her rant-heavy 2002 album, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, sunk a career that 1998’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill suggested would be one for the ages.
In the wake of Miseducation’s success, Hill was sued by a group of musicians collectively known as New Ark for not appropriately crediting or compensating them for their work. These lawsuits are common, especially with a project as successful as Miseducation, but the suit (which was reportedly settled for millions) clearly made a deep negative impact on Hill. In a Los Angeles Times article about the suit, New Ark’s lawyer very pointedly argues against Hill: “She is not a musician, she is not a producer. [New Ark] will make another album and everyone will see that they were the ones responsible for this album. I dare say if you put Lauryn Hill in a studio alone, she couldn’t do it again. Album No. 2 for her is not going to sound like this.”
Nearly 20 years later, we still have no idea what album No. 2 will sound like for Hill. She did record a follow-up of sorts with MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, the audio companion to Hill’s contribution to the venerable MTV series of specials. The effort was to help satisfy the immense public hunger for new songs from Hill by providing fans with an early look at raw new songs that would presumably be cleaned up when she recorded studio versions. This was an opportunity to prove that Hill wasn’t just a rapper and singer and icon: She was a musician. Nobody could claim credit for MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 other than Hill, because nobody other than Hill would be involved in the performance. As a result, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 feels less like an embryonic version of a proper album than a series of rough drafts that would need to be considerably finessed even to sound like a halfway decent demo.
Very early in the show, Hill tells the audience, “I used to get dressed for y’all. I don’t do that anymore.” For Hill, professionalism is a costume she has deliberately chosen to eschew. She has liberated herself from the burden of having to look good, sound good, hit her marks, and inhabit the role of professional entertainer. Hill gives herself permission to fuck up as egregiously as possible. She lets the audience know that if she decides to sing “baby baby baby” for 18 bars, she’ll do so. There are times throughout when things get so self-indulgent that Hill singing the same words for minutes at a time begins to seem less like a joke than a real possibility. Similarly, at one point Hill clarifies that a comment she had just made was directed toward the voices in her head. Within the context of the show, that doesn’t really feel like a joke. The interludes and the rants and monologues don’t stop and seem to take up as much of the two discs as the songs.
Hill is ingratiatingly self-deprecating about her shortcomings as a guitarist. More than once she confesses that she doesn’t know how to fade out while performing live, so she simply announces that a song is about to end. Miseducation proved Hill to be a great songwriter, but too many of the songs on the first MTV disc feel like Hill banging out a few basic chords while rattling off entries from her poetry journal.
She says early on, “I used to be a performer,” whereas now she’s simply “sharing” the music she has been “given.” Hill clearly came to see professionalism as a poisonous lie, a fiction she was forced into performing at the behest of parasites who fundamentally did not care about her. She hits the stage having apparently experienced the life-changing epiphany that music is a gift from the cosmos. For Hill, making music is now about serving God and realizing her own creative destiny as a vessel for profound truths, not about entertaining people.
Hill is less interested in putting on a conventionally satisfying show than in using the intimacy of the Unplugged format as a springboard to express her recent spiritual revelations and hard-earned life lessons. It’s now apparent that she failed on both counts. But in the process of following a career-making solo album with the ultimate messy follow-up, Hill created something unique. At a time of intense creative and personal turmoil, she made something singularly alive and eccentric and overflowing with passionate earnestness and spiritual yearning. And in its second disc, she made something genuinely, legitimately good, but by that point I suspected an audience exhausted and disappointed by the first disc had already given up.
Listening to the 106 minutes of ragged nerves and rough edges that constitute MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 is like being trapped inside the brain of a tormented genius. It was as though Hill were ripping open her soul and challenging the world: “THIS is who I really am. Accept me in all my ugliness and pain or don’t accept me at all,” and an overwhelmed public didn’t really know how to respond. Hill defiantly states throughout MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 that what you’re witnessing is the real her, and that what came before was an act that was killing her from the inside. If that’s true, then society was as unenthused by the “real” Hill as they were blown away by the polished facade.
When the audience applauds, it’s hard to tell whether it’s out of politeness, genuine appreciation, or because they’re just glad that a song has finally ended. That’s part of what makes the project so fascinatingly uncomfortable and off-putting. Hill is bearing her soul. She’s bleeding onstage, and the audience doesn’t seem to know how to process it. There’s a weird disconnect between the audience and the performer that’s at least partially attributable to the self-absorption and narcissism of her performance. Hill continually lets the audience know, both explicitly and implicitly, that she’s performing songs for her own sake, not theirs.
On the first disc, Hill’s palpable anger and confusion dominate the proceedings. On the vastly superior second disc, she finds a way to channel her rage and passion and furious devotion into art. Similarly, on the first disc, Hill talks a lot about freedom and liberation and the necessity of escaping the boxes and strictures of a corrupt and impure world. On the second disc, Hill acts out what that freedom sounds and feels like. She returns to rap with a marathon verse on “Mystery Of Iniquity,” directing her rage at the legal system, former collaborators, and the whole wicked world with the same scary intensity. Hill is still powered by rage, but that rage feels freeing rather than imprisoning here.
Although Hill never got into the studio and released a polished version of “Mystery Of Iniquity,” another eccentric genius with a propensity for career-harming outbursts finished the song after a fashion when Kanye West brilliantly integrated it into “All Falls Down,” a standout track from his own career-making solo debut, The College Dropout.
It seems like everyone with an acoustic guitar covers Bob Marley, but as both a creative heir to the frat-boy icon and the mother of some of his grandchildren, Hill has more of a right to that catalog than most. Hill turns Marley’s “So Much Things To Say” into a powerful, passionate indictment of the corruption of the material world perfectly in line with the album’s obsession with transcending the ugliness of this world and looking to the salvation of the next.
Hill was less interested in debuting new songs than in unveiling the truth of the universe as she understood it. It quickly becomes apparent that the medium for expressing these ideas is less important than the ideas themselves. To Hill, it doesn’t particularly matter whether these ideas are expressed through gorgeous, spirited anthems of empowerment and resilience, like “So Much Things To Say” and “I Get Out,” or through epic rants.
MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 set out to prove that Hill did not need the coterie of world-class supporting musicians who played a big role in making her solo debut a universally beloved masterpiece. Hill wanted to show that she didn’t need anyone else to be compelling, that the elegant simplicity of just herself and a guitar could be spellbinding in itself. In the second disc, that gamble pays off; in the first, it feels like intentional self-sabotage.
Fourteen years later, MTV Unplugged 2.0 remains prickly yet alluring. It’s impossible to either dismiss or wholeheartedly endorse this beautiful boondoggle, this exquisite mess, so I am giving it one of my mixed/made-up ratings and dubbing it a Secret Fiascocess, though if I could separate the discs, the first would be a Fiasco, the second a Secret Success.
In not only exposing but also flaunting her imperfections, Hill ended up obscuring her remarkable gifts for much of the album. MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 was Hill’s attempt to transcend the strictures of pop stardom, to become not just a pop star but also a prophet, a philosopher, and a poet. The world arguably needs some of those, but it needs a genius who can make an album like The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill a whole lot more, as MTV Unplugged No. 2.0’s second disc proves. Hopefully at some point, Lauryn Hill will pull a Dave Chappelle and make a timely comeback for the benefit of an adoring public that never stopped mourning her absence.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Fiascocess