lauryn hill

“so much things to say” – lauryn hill

right at the start i’m going to go ahead and expose the flimsy pretext of this being some kind of real feature (“songs that should be on ‘the hills'”) by saying that basically i am just going to talk about songs i like and then through some bullshit-fu and clumsy rhetorical acrobatics try to connect them tangentially to “the hills” and also possibly to a larger cultural context. since this is largely how this blog works anyway, i assume this isn’t going to offend anyone, so there.

lauryn hill’s “mtv-unplugged 2.0” has been one of my favorite albums of all time since i was a sophomore in college in 2004. i remember seeing part of the television show when it first aired in 2002 and that it fascinated me in some way i couldn’t articulate, but i had crappy taste in music then and so didn’t really come to listen to the album until i got a copy from a friend at college in 2004. coincidentally, i probably really got into it at about the same time that kanye west’s “all falls down” (which features an interpolation of “unplugged 2.0″‘s “mystery of iniquity“) was really starting to pop.

when i was first trying to think of the aforementioned flimsy theoretical pretext for writing about this album/song, i had decided to write about how it related to reality television. i was going to focus on the fact that, in addition to being an album, “unplugged 2.0” was of course a television show, a reality television event. i was going to do explications of choice lauryn quotes like, “see…fantasy is what people want but reality is what they need…and i’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” and also some other bullshit that i hadn’t really thought of yet.

but then i realized that the album has a lot more to do with something other than reality television. i said earlier that “unplugged 2.0” became one of my favorite albums when i was a college sophomore. i think that it’s the perfect album for college sophomores, which is to also say that it’s the perfect album for bloggers.

“unplugged 2.0” is a double album – it’s an hour and forty six minutes long. of that hour and forty six minutes, about a half an hour is devoted to l.hill just talking about stuff. these eight tracks, the interludes, are really like spoken word blog entries, maybe delivered at a “hip, urban” poetry slam instead of via typepad or wordpress. the interludes mix the funny with the serious, the deeply religious with the quotidian, homespun wisdom with banality, self confidence with insecurity. l. talks about celebrity culture, about image politics, about her personal life. there are coughs and long silences and pauses where she stops and asks for tea because her throat is raspy. the whole thing is begging for the coinage of the term overshare.

the best interlude for discussing all of this is the longest one, interlude 5, which lasts twelve minutes and thirteen seconds. this is longer than a song has any right to be, but luckily this isn’t a song. interlude 5 begins with lauryn asking the audience, “y’all doing alright? you okay?” they applaud and she says, laughing, “i’m just asking a question, y’all givin’ me a clap – a yes is fine.” after an extended pause, she starts a monologue about how everybody’s in the same mess:

I tell you, I know everybody’s in the same mess, I’m telling you, we all are, I, I, I know that, you know, and I’m just, you know, I’ll be the first to tell you, you know, I’m a mess and God is dealing with me every day, every day I’m trying to learn how I can be less of a mess. [laughter]

she goes on about how God has helped her understand that she is the problem and that she is what has to change, he has broken down life into “problem, cause, solution,” that “that’s what all of these songs are about: problem, cause, and solution.” then she shifts a hundred and eighty degrees, from talking about how we are all the same to how we are all unique individuals and how important it is.

You already are the standard. What are you trying to fit a standard for? We were each created to be individual standards, you know. And we’re trying to fit into a standard? It doesn’t make any sense, you know. So now I’m just, you know, after all that, I’m just ready to be me. And it’s a lot to work through, you know, because all of us have hidden in these little boxes purposely, because of parts of ourselves that we were unhappy about. And it’s because we didn’t understand, you know, because there’s all this social doctrine that says, you know, that the infinite God, with all this expression, who created every single one of us, absolutely different, on purpose, wants everybody to fit into the same suit. But like, you know, that’s deception. That’s deception.

then she stops her monologue to talk to her husband, rohan marley, off stage, who is trying to find something in her purse.

Ok, let me just, I think this is the wrong one (laughing) I don’t think this is the right one.

then she tells a story about taking her kids to disney world the previous weekend.

We took, we were in, uh, Florida this weekend, and we took the kids to Disney World. And um, and we were going, they gave us a tour and so they escorted us through the back. and when they escorted us through the back, we got to see how, you know, how there was all these people working all hard and it was like real dirty back there, and, of course, in the front it was all immaculately clean. And I, I said, you know, people need to see the reality, they need to see how people slave to maintain this illusion – it felt like my life.

then she tells a story about her interactions with her husband backstage.

I was in there in the room, you know, before we came out here, and he said to me, I said, “Ro should I change?” And he said, “Yeah.” So I looked at him, I said, “Why did you tell me to change? I was comfortable, man.” But I asked him the question. So I went in the room and I tried on all these clothes and I was like, I feel like an idiot. So I pulled out all these clothes and I’m sayin, “ok Ro, you know, pack the bag neatly, you know, could you put the clothes back in?” And he’s like, “All right.” So he’s trying to do this but then I’m like, “No! Now take this out! Now put that back and take that out! Put that back, hold that, take, that, put, The orange shoe! The orange shoe!” [laughter] So I’m like. And then after awhile I just said, “Ro baby, could you leave? Please get out the room. And I just put back on the clothes I came in.” Ok, I was like…I’m just not there anymore. Nah, I’m telling you. It’s like, uh. [laughter]. Hey you know he’s learned. Because before we used to just beef and now he’s like, “Okay…I’m out.” It’s real.

then she cracks some jokes about how marriage and dating work.

It’s like, we date people, like let’s say, you know, we’re interested in somebody and we put on the perfume and dress up and then we do things that we will never ever ever do again! You understand what I’m sayin? It’s like…And that’s why so many marriages end up in divorce. It’s because people wake up next to a stranger. They say, “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in this bed? Where’s that man that used to do ‘du, dua, and du?’” And I’m sayin’ let’s give them reality from the door because…you’re going to attract love, and the one that really loves you. And then you don’t have to pretend and falsify, and you know, keep that posture.

then she tells how she first met her husband

…I’ll never forget when I first met him I said to him, it was like, he saw me eating in front of him, and he told me, he was like, “You eat like a man, you must not like me.” You know, because, women, usually they keep that posture. And I said, “Nah. I said it’s not even that, you know.” It’s but, this is reality. This is, you know, and that’s it, man, I mean, I’m just telling you, it’s so wonderful to finally find…And trust me, it’s a work in progress, it’s not something that happens overnight. We all have to be introduced to each other.

then she talks about how daily change is necessary.

I’m changing, because that’s a natural part of life. We’re all supposed to change. Who wakes up and is the same way tomorrow and the day after that? Nobody is. Let the experience teach you and be real, man.

then she talks about what she has to say to haters who don’t like her mode of expression (shades of the manifestos against the MSM).

Because there’s some people who prefer deceptions, see. They say, uh, I don’t like this new expression, and I say, what, you want two-thirds of me to stay outside? I’m a whole person. you can’t say, you know, two-thirds of Lauryn, come in here. Only two-thirds is acceptable. I’m a whole person, you know, and that’s everybody. You always talk about spiritual warfare and we didn’t realize that it was in relationships. It’s emotional warfare. Being able to tell the people we love the most the truth about ourselves. And when they say, “Hey, that doesn’t fit into our box for you,” we say, “Well, I ain’t in no box. don’t try to put me in one.” I’m going to play a little bit of guitar with this one, but I might stop it cause I really want you to listen to the words, so if I stop, you understand why. I want you to really hear the words…”

the album is a flipped and reversed biblical verse – instead of the word made flesh, it’s the flesh made word (and sound); it’s straight up essence rendered in a double album you can download off of soulseek, drinkable like bottled holy water cold from your mom’s fridge. during portions of a couple of the interludes, hill riffs on the word “repent.” for her, to repent doesn’t mean to ask for forgiveness, though, it means that by saying what’s inside her, by getting it out, she doesn’t have to feel bad or guilty and she doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness. in interlude 5, she says, “the real gospel is ‘repent,’ which means, ‘let go of all that crap, that’s killin’ ya.'” “i just feel like sharing,” she says in interlude 7.

at the climax of my favorite song on the album, “adam lives in theory,” hill vamps, singing “what, what we gonna do now, where we gonna go now, what we gonna say now?” she asks it again, playing with the melody. her skittery flamenco strum breaks into doubletime, racing under her as she sings, “i’m telling you, telling you, i’m telling you, i’m telling you, i’m telling you, i’m telling you.” during all this, she’s ostensibly talking about jesus (“he’s going to tell us what to do now,” “i’m telling you he’s going to tell you”) but then right after the song ends and the crowd applauds, she doesn’t say “praise god,” she says, “i’ll tell you, every single one of these songs is about me first, me first.” like so many blog entries, the content of what’s being said may not be as important to the author as the simple fact of saying it, of putting something out there that wasn’t there before. it’s not about what’s being told, it’s about telling it.

the songs themselves are sketches, demos, unfinished, full of false starts and miscues. several of the interludes seem necessitated by the fact that hill has beaten her guitar out of tune and has to have it fixed. yet despite or because of their imperfection and incompletion, she sings her songs with the sincerity and commitment of a thirteen year old girl updating her livejournal in the middle of the night or chris crocker crying about britney. there is no band, no accompaniment, it’s just her and a nylon-string guitar. thus, there’s little to no distance between this album/show and the bedroom busking that is such a large part of youtube, the heartfelt awkwardness and clumsy, outsider perfection of so many of those solo-strummed videos. without a band to have to interact with or polished, recorded songs that her audience knows, l. is free in nearly every song to lay into the aforementioned vamps, in which she repeats a line or two lines over and over and over again, varying the the rhythm, the tempo, her vocal inflection, the phrasing, the melody; swapping out a word or two for others, swelling the volume and intensity so that she’s yelling and then dropping into pockets of quiet reflection, turning the music over and showing it from different angles.

if this album came out today, it would be a big hit, a cultural touchstone. in 2002, it was too weird and too personal to be truly popular – it was considered a train wreck. but in 2008, to be considered a train wreck is to be considered, to be considered in tabloids and magazines and blogs, to be considered on “the view” and “oprah” and “tyra” (imagine lauryn hill having a whole hour on “tyra”), to be considered around water coolers and at Starbucks. to be considered a train wreck doesn’t make you less important, it makes you more important; it doesn’t make you less interesting, it makes you more interesting; it doesn’t make you less of a person, it makes you more of a person.

in his recent song, “champion,” kanye devotes a verse to lauryn.

When it feel like living’s harder than dyin’
For me givin’ up’s way harder than tryin’
Lauryn Hill say her heart was in Zion
I wish her heart still was in rhymin’

when you search for the lyrics to this song, as i did when writing this, a yahoo answers page comes up near the top of the search results. a person has quoted the verse i quoted above and asked what “zion” kanye is referring to. someone responds, first quoting the lyrics of “to zion,” a song from “the miseducation of lauryn hill.” the commenter notes that,

Lauryn Hill is the mother of four children with Rohan Marley, the fourth son of reggae legend Bob Marley. Together they have four children. Her eldest son is Zion David Hill-Marley, and the song was written for him.

The double meaning of the “Zion” in the song is in the Rastafarian sense – “Zion” is the promised land, or Paradise (actually it is Ethiopia.) “

the person goes on to give a brief, wikipedian summary of rastafarian beliefs about marcus garvey, haile selassie, and ethiopia. the original asker of the question rates this answer 5 stars, the maximum possible rating, and then writes back,

thats cool. i was just wondering cuz i live in a town called zion. i wanted to know more.

so, actually, zion is three things. it’s the name of lauryn hill’s oldest son and, also, it’s a mythical promised land of milk and honey and dope beats and, also, it’s a small town where somebody heard a song that mentioned the name of their small town and thought kanye west was maybe talking about their small town and wanted to know what it all meant, wanted to find some way to connect this big, popular song by this big, popular artist to the place where they get up every morning and eat breakfast and check their e-mail. “unplugged 2.0” is that kind of spirit sustained for an hour and forty-six minutes. in 2002, the “2.0” in the title was probably a reference to the fact that the album was double-disc, but, obviously, in the blog age, “2.0” means something else entirely. i could tease out that connection for you, but my explanation would be stupid and banal and pretentious all at once, it would bear the aching imperfections of my humanity, and, hey, this is a blog, right, so there’s enough of that kind of shit already.



oh, whoah, so, i got a little distracted there. back to “the hills.” i think “so much things to say” is probably the best choice of “unplugged 2.0” songs for “the hills” soundtrack. music on “the hills” tends to take one of three forms – it is either fashionable poppy ear candy meant to provide motion, gleam, and cool-cred (i could look up some songs and put them inside these parentheses), or it is powerfully emotional female-sung pop meant to represent emotional climax and catharsis (cat power’s “the greatest,” the show’s theme song, i am too lazy to actually research these points), or it is singer songwriter stuff meant to underplay the quiet, reflective, yearn-y moments closing some episodes (anamarie digby’s cover of “umbrella,” the nouvelle vague cover of “i melt with you,” the piano ballad cover of “girls just wanna have fun” in the second season).

“so much things to say” obviously fits the second category – if you’ve been listening to it while you’ve been reading this, you know that. when music is emotional on “the hills,” it is intensely so – many times it, not what the girls actually say, is the true expression of their emotions, of their feelings. this is an evolution of the use of music on “the real world.” emotional music on “the real world” is situational and ensemble-driven – it’s supposed to reflect the general mood of the group of people in the situation that’s broken out between them. music is used that way on “the hills,” too, but sometimes it seems like it’s supposed to be what it sounds like just in one person’s head, in lauren’s or heidi’s skull, like it’s streaming off their frontal lobe onto the soundtrack.

the lyrics of “so much things to say” seem apt to be playing in heidi or lauren’s heads during one of those emotional scenes at an episode’s climax where something important has changed. the song has verses about marcus garvey being “sold for rice” and a lot of biblical allusions and black history stuff i don’t understand, but the chorus is pretty universal and contemporary – lauryn just repeats, over and over,

They got so much things to say right now;
They got so much things to say.
They got so much things to say right now;
They got so much things to say.

and later

They’ve got, they’ve got, so very many things to say about me
I’m telling you: lie
They, and they, and they will have so many things
They’ll have so many things to say about you… to say about you
Cuz they don’t know me, know me
They don’t know me, oh they don’t know me, oh they don’t know me
Oh they don’t know me well

rewind a second. in the outro of “unplugged 2.0,” lauryn talks about her treatment by the press.

It’s like, if you give yourself up, listen, nobody can blackmail you at anything. I never forget, you know, when I first started to understand what all of this was all about, I just went to my, my parents and I just started confessin’ about stuff I did like in the second grade. Seriously, but we don’t know how all that stuff over time, we kids, man, all that repression, all that stuff just holdin’ you, you know, stuff I – talkin’ about boys feelin’ my booty in the second grade, I mean, I’m tellin’, and and ashamed of that, you know. Like no…Like no other girl in this audience played “run catch and kiss” or any of those silly games, you know. But just, from a child, just growing up with all that guilt, you know, and we think that that’s God. We think that’s God, telling us, “Feel guilty.” God is saying, “Get free, confess, man.” Understand that, look, everybody’s going through the same stuff, same issues, it’s just a bunch of repression. And I’m saying, man, life is too, is too valuable man, for us to sit here in these boxes all repressed, afraid to admit what we’re really going through, you know what I’m saying? I’m tired of that.

I’ll tell people, listen, I, it was so funny, when I was trying to, whenever I was pregnant with my first, my son, when I was trying to keep it a, a secret, it was all over the place, you know. And I went everywhere and I said, “Hey, I’m having another baby,” and I didn’t hear about it at all. And I was like, man, I said, look, “Y’all just wanna deal in, in stuff that people don’t want out.” So now I just give myself up. “Yeah, I’m having another child, yep, yep. What else would you like to know?” Yeah, I’m crazy and deranged, you know, and I’m free, you see, I’m free. You know, I might play these songs and twitch a little bit, just so people know, you know, look [laughter] Dont, I’m telling you, when they think you crazy, they don’t mess with you. I’m telling you, you think, y’all think that that’s a curse, it’s a blessing, it’s a blessing. When I was, uh, you know, uh, a politician, boy, everybody, just all over me, you know, I didn’t have a private moment at all, not, not one private moment. And now that people think I’m crazy and deranged, we have peace, total peace. And so I, listen as far as I’m concerned, I’m crazy and deranged. As far as all y’all know, I’m crazy and deranged, I’m emotionally unstable, and, and uh, I’m not gonna ch- and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. [laughter]

does that make you think about anyone? you might like to know that rohan marley, the father of lauryn’s children, left her last fall, while she was pregnant with her fifth child, and that he was/is good friends with kevin federline.

by another weird google accident, i found out that “so much things to say” is actually a cover of an old bob marley song. the variation of the chorus that i’ve quoted above, though, the “they don’t know me” one, isn’t in bob’s version, and i think that those lines, about how “they have so many things to say about me” and “you” but that “they don’t know me, they don’t know me,” lauryn‘s additions, those are the ones have the most to do with lauren, and with heidi and lindsay and britney, too; not with I and I but with us and US, with me and you.