I can faithfully, honestly say that hiphop is dead. —Q-Tip
Hiphop being counterculture, underground culture, that’s sorta dead. It’s all mainstream. It’s just a bunch of pop music. —Meshell Ndégeocello
Anything that’s not growing is dead. So we better be changing. —Lauryn Hill
Quiet as it’s kept, the new Lauryn Hill record is the most powerful artistic document to emerge from hiphop America post-9-11. Since September, hiphop’s most conspicuous commentary on the bombing of Afghanistan and circuitous circumstances of wicked foreign policy came from Wu-Tang, a crew hitherto known for their acerbic Illuminati observations. When Ghostface dumbly asserted, “America—united we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush, sit down, I’m in charge of the war,” it signaled an embarrassing moment, given how politically rife things were for analysis and I-told-you-so indictments. But months before the tragedy—on the Fourth of July, no less, at an African Arts Festival in Brooklyn—Lauryn was the lone hiphop voice making prophetic pronouncements: I don’t respect your system. I won’t protect your system. The system is a joke. You’d be smart to save your soul, and escape this mind control. These traditions are a lie.
For the former Fugee’s unfortunately named MTV Unplugged 2.0 to fall below the radar of the pop music populace would be criminal. Picture Springsteen’s Nebraska as a hiphop moment: an acoustic, commercially alienating personal project, unsettling, straight-forward, biting. The response to Lauryn’s Woody Guthrie/Bob Marley turn has been iffy to negligible ’cause of justifiable beef over her raspy vocals, elementary guitar chord command, “emotionally unstable” rambling, and often-oblique lyrics. But the album is a masterstroke anyway, if for no other reason than how its anti-Babylon quips sidestep Lauryn’s potential sophomore slump: Everybody knows that they’re guilty. Everybody knows that they lied. Resting on their conscience eating their inside. It’s freedom time.
Those who thought The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was preachy in spots are really in for it now. The opener, “Mr. Intentional,” is ambiguously directed toward either the record industry, the American Dream, or an old lover, and singing of being “stuck in a system that seeks to suck your blood” is bound to sound pretentiously didactic to some. If Public Enemy were still in their prime, Chuck D would probably be rhyming about the government and Pakistan benefiting from installing a puppet regime in Kabul, in order to run oil from Russia through Afghanistan to the port of Karachi. No such pinpoint details from Lauryn, who prefers reggae polemics and biblical metaphors. In literal current-event terms, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks cartoon might be a greater political statement.
So Lauryn’s tearful breakdown on “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind”—faintly reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s three-suite “Green Eyes” in its emotional structure, and downright disturbing when initially aired on MTV2 in March—could just as easily stem from the cheatin’ heart of her man, Rohan Marley, as from her frustration with society. But for us critics of hiphop culture who say, “Fuck Eminem” (peace to Harry Allen—it ain’t just how you say what you say; it’s what you’re saying), lines from “Adam Lives in Theory” validate what we expect from MCs crowned as the best of the best: Let the thief be crucified. Say goodbye to this decaying social system. It’s not so much simplistic as plainspoken.
Lauryn says a lot over the album’s seven interludes—some repetitive, some almost apologetic—in regards to her vocals (“I wanted to maintain this immaculate-sounding voice, but that’s not realistic”), her songs’ vague subject matter (“I know some of it sounds almost cryptic. But whatever He relates to whomever’s listening is what’s supposed to be understood”), and her about-face from the trappings of fame (“I created this public illusion, and it held me hostage. At that point, I had to do some dying”). Given her incessant repetition of certain themes (throughout the interludes, she mentions the word “reality” 12 times), she could’ve said even more. Those who feel hiphop is reactionary right now—what with Nas playing up his grassroots, nation-man image to counter rival Jay-Z’s platinum playa persona—consider Lauryn’s Joni Mitchell move a response to the 1998 lawsuit she settled out of court, brought by four producers who claimed they were swindled out of production and songwriting credit on Miseducation. No clues to any of that here. Still, the best of what she does deliver (“I Find It Hard to Say [Rebel],” “Freedom Time”) may be the dopest set of demos since Dirty Mind.
Bravery is the thing. And to trade MTV Unplugged‘s flaws—how Lauryn flubs lyrics twice or thrice, centers every song strumming the same three riffs, and talks a little too much—for the slickness of, for example, India.Arie’s debut would be a mistake. If hiphop were dying, what would turn the tide if not some chance-taking? If hiphop is already dead, could an album like this do anything other than lead things toward the next progression? These songs sound a whole lot more like the future than the new Wyclef record, seen?
“It’s very important that you really listen to the words,” Lauryn says from the very beginning. “Just Like Water” rides a lilting Stevie Wonder-like melody, and the verses are soaked in aquatic imagery. When she introduces “I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)” explaining her concern over incendiary lyrics being misinterpreted, her words of warning seem warranted: I find it hard to say everything is all right, she begins. By the end, she pleads with tearstained vocals: We must destroy in order to rebuild. Or are you satisfied? Or are you satisfied? Rebel! It’s an arresting moment, rivaled by her impassioned free, free, free your mind intonations on “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” three songs later.
Hiphop circa 2002 stands at a critical juncture. From Cee-Lo to Q-Tip to Saul Williams to Mos Def’s rock band, Black Jack Johnson, artists are stretching the boundaries of the form, picking up instruments and abandoning the so-called hiphop nation for greener pastures. This might just be the point where the whitefolks take over rap like rock ‘n’ roll, while blackfolks create some brand-new shit (yet again); check back with me in 10 years. In any event, the old L-Boogie done gone. The woman who stands in her wake—the mother of three attempting to fill Marley’s shoes with her own tales of heartache, redemption, and triumph—is adding layers to her artistry in full view of the public, whether critics think she can actually play that guitar (so far) or not.
Last Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, Lauryn spoke of screwfaces whose egos get upset by the truth, and her uncertainty over whether she’d be performing for a happy crowd or a lynch mob, while previewing even newer songs to the souled-out crowd: “Let Me Loose,” “Damnable Heresies,” and the title track to her next studio album, the as-of-today-entitled Social Drugs. Her efforts received a standing ovation, preceding an encore that included Marley’s “Concrete Jungle.” Her voice was stronger than the Unplugged performance, her confidence building. Lauryn seemed to take solace in the self-evident audience for her new direction. Stay tuned.