- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

NEW YORK — Lauryn Hill was on top of the music world with her last album. "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" wowed critics, sold 6 million copies, earned five Grammys and influenced an entire school of new soul singers.

Wait till you hear what she's done next.

On her new album, due in stores yesterday , Miss Hill dramatically changes her style, intersperses songs with sermons and doesn't hide a raspy voice. It instantly becomes one of the most baffling career moves in music history.

The music industry is closely watching to see whether fans view "MTV Unplugged 2.0" as brave or crazy, and whether it torpedoes a promising career.

When released four years ago, the solo debut by the former member of the rap trio the Fugees was praised for its incisive lyrics and groundbreaking synthesis of rap and soul. It won the 1999 Grammy for album of the year.

So MTV was excited last summer when Miss Hill approached with the idea of taping a version of its long-running "Unplugged" series, said Tom Calderone, senior vice president of music and talent programming.

"We had no idea when we sat down to do the show what kind of direction she was going into," Mr. Calderone said.

Miss Hill came armed only with an acoustic guitar. She sang none of her hits, instead debuting all new songs in a folk style. She spoke at length about personal and artistic problems between the songs.

MTV aired a one-hour edited version of her performance last week, and its spinoff MTV2 channel has shown the whole thing. The album is an unadorned recording of the entire concert.

Mr. Calderone called it a "bold move in a day when album releases and videos are calculated, strategized and analyzed."

Yet the initial critical reaction is mixed, at best.

Jim Farber of the New York Daily News wrote that the disc "sounds as though it should have been called 'Lauryn Hill: Unglued,'"

"She's giving Alanis Morissette a run for her money in the self-indulgence department," Mr. Farber wrote. "Both mistake disclosure for revelation, and bald experience for good art. What's missing from Hill's equation are matters like craft and presentation."

Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times wrote that at times, it was hard to tell whether the album came from a concert or news conference.

"This kind of daring is all too rare in pop, but the boldness isn't accompanied by any consistent discipline and craft," Mr. Hilburn wrote.

Rolling Stone gave the album 3 1/2 stars, however, saying "the results are sometimes messy, but more often they're miraculous."

The album includes nine spoken-word interludes. One, where Miss Hill talks about a trip to Disney World, stretches beyond 12 minutes.

The songs generally run long, too. Critic Alexis Petridis in the British newspaper The Guardian wrote that the song, "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" "would still be going on right now, if Miss Hill had not necessitated its conclusion by suddenly bursting into tears."

Reporters at two music trade publications declined to be interviewed about the album, on the theory that if they didn't have anything nice to say, they shouldn't say anything at all.

Miss Hill is not giving interviews about her work because "she's trying to keep the connection between the music and the listeners as pure as possible," a spokesman said.

Her label, Columbia Records, did not make an executive available to talk about the disc.

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