When Lauryn Hill began her concert Saturday at the Grove of Anaheim without explaining why she was 90 minutes late getting started, you braced yourself for the worst. After her severely unfocused "MTV Unplugged No. 2.0" live album this spring, the last thing she needed was another public meltdown.
In retrospect, "Unplugged" could hardly have been a worse word in the album title. After the eccentric nature of Hill's performance on album, "Unplugged" was too easy a target for jokes. "Unhinged" might have been the only title more unfortunate.
On the album, Hill devoted a quarter of the 100-plus minutes to rambling commentaries between songs, outlining a spiritual awakening that led her to sever ties not only with her earlier hip-hop/rap music but also her old ways of thinking. She also became so overcome during one number that she broke into tears.
Turning her back on the material from "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," which won five Grammys, including album of the year in 1999, she focused on the new songs that documented her feelings about the evils of the legal system, show business, social apathy and moral corruption.
She, too, left aside the ambitious musical arrangements that were showcased on the album and her accompanying tour. On "Unplugged," she assumed more a folk-singer role, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.
While some critics called Hill's dramatic redirection as courageous, most decried its lack of artistic discipline. The public, too, has been cool to the two-disc set. After entering the charts at No. 2 on May 15, it has fallen faster than the Dow--to No. 96 last week.
Against this backdrop, there was an understandable sense of drama in the room when Hill walked on stage alone Saturday.
The first good sign as she sat in a chair with her acoustic guitar was that she went straight into the music--no repeat of the emotional back-story that clogged up the album. Indeed, the only extended remarks of the evening were near the end when she reaffirmed her spiritual beliefs and thanked the audience for its support. It took less than a minute.
Where that self-editing was a healthy sign of renewed discipline, Hill now needs to apply that same judgment to the music of "Unplugged," which varies greatly in quality.
You could feel Hill's passion for these songs in her every breath. Joined by a percussionist on a few numbers, she sang throughout the 90-minute set with such a convincing blend of fierce declaration and loving testimony that made every word seem essential. In truth, the songs are sometimes vague (particularly "Mr. Intentional," which opened Saturday's show), and even the most focused ones are frustratingly uneven.
There are passages in "I Find It Hard to Say," "Just Like Water" and "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" that revive all the promise and craft of Hill's "Miseducation" work, but even those songs sometimes mix inspired images and rhymes with conventional, even cliched ones.
In even the weakest moments, however, there was indeed a sense of courage in Hill's approach. Few artists would have the strength to move away so boldly from an approach that had brought her such commercial success and acclaim. Where "Unplugged" was as messy as a car wreck creatively, Hill, who was scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, seems to be back in control behind the wheel, even if she's still weaving a bit between lanes.
The flaws in her new songs may be simply because she feels her message is more important than her art. If she eventually realizes that the only way she can effectively spread her message is through the exercise of artistic discipline, Hill may still have quite a future in the pop world. Before Saturday, some felt that future was very much in doubt.