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Our critics' picks in new releases

Lauryn Hill 

Our critics' picks in new releases

Every 10 years or so, there comes along an artist who creates an album so special that it defines a musical genre. With the release of Lauryn Hill's Unplugged No. 2.0 (recorded live during an MTV Unplugged appearance), the New Jersey native just might have achieved that rare music brilliance that's generally reserved for such legends as Billie Holliday, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.

Like Gaye before he released his classic opus, What's Going On, in 1971, Hill retreated into self-imposed exile after the mega-success of her 1998 multi-Grammy Award winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, to do, as she put it, "some serious soul searching." Since returning from her hiatus with Unplugged No. 2.0, the former Fugees star not only climbs a new plateau as an artist but raises the stakes considerably in the so-called neo-soul movement that's taking place these days.

Hill grew up somewhat of a prodigy. From her musical beginning in film (Sister Act 2) to becoming arguably the most talented member of critically acclaimed hip-hop group The Fugees, the versatile Hill has always been able to get an audience to focus on her words, whether rapping or singing. With Unplugged No. 2.0, she sheds the glitz and glamour associated with being a diva to deliver an unadorned, insightful musical message. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, and sans her trademark dreadlocks, Hill gives an honest and intimate look into her soul and the spiritual evolution taking place therein. There's no musical props, background singers or band-- just Hill giving you a heartfelt testimony of both her personal trials and the trials and tribulations going on in the world.

By her own admission, Hill went out on a limb giving an acoustic performance in today's electro-computerized music world. But it's just that kind of risk that makes this album stand out from the rest of the pack. Hill had something powerful to say, and by stripping her music down to the bare essentials, you hear her and tune into her message. Each track, as well as the interludes in between where Hill chats with the audience, is a masterpiece worth listening to. From beautiful songs like "Adam Lives In Theory," "Just Like Water" and "Mr. Intentional," Hill gives you not what you want, but rather, what you might need.

The neo-soul movement is still in its early stages. But with Unplugged No. 2.0, Hill makes an album that proves to be a reference for the movement because it was made straight from the soul, with no chaser. And that's the way soul music is supposed to be made.

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