Who was your favorite member of The Fugees? Was it Lauryn with her intellectual urban rhymes and that seductive voice? Or maybe you found yourself gravitating towards the darkly imaginative raps of producer/rapper Wyclef Jean? Was it the under-loved MC Pras with his clunky raps and overused– but endearing–lines?
Whoever it was, the love affair most likely began (and maybe ended) with the trio’s 1996 sophomore and final release, The Score. The album became an “instant classic” in all senses of the term. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard music chart (which still mattered back then) and went platinum six times. The Score has seemed to only grown in its importance. It was included in Rolling Stone‘s top 500 albums of all time back in 2003 and the cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” can still be heard blasting out of car windows in Brooklyn and resonating from the ear-buds of passengers on any given subway ride. Not to mention that it arguably was one of the first alternative hip hop albums from the 1990s that was able to crossover into the mainstream. Now over 15 years later, Lauryn is performing her 1998 classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at Rock the Bells concerts after disappearing for five-plus years, Wyclef has become a philanthropist and pseudo-political figure while Pras…well, who knows where Pras is, but we wish him well. A lot has changed since The Score and despite commercial success in some form or another for all three at various points in their solo careers, they may have never sounded as good as they did as a trio.
The main complaint (the only one really) about Lauryn Hill’s Grammy award winning solo debut is that she doesn’t rap enough on it. It seems an arbitrary complaint until you revisit The Score and remember just how sick she really was when spitting. The complaint becomes even more relevant when looking back on the field (or lack thereof) of female MCs over the past 15 years. How many more female MCs would have been launched if Lauryn chose to rap more rather than become a singer? We’ll never know.
On The Score, though, from her opening verse on “How Many Mics?” Hill is on fire dropping biting social commentary amongst references spanning Alice in Wonderland to black nationalist Khalid Muhammed. She also rhymes a bit in French for good measure. On “Zealots” she establishes her mastery on the mic with lines like, “So while you fuming, I’m consuming mango juice under Polaris/ You just embarrassed cause it’s your last tango in Paris.” Rhyming a star constellation with a reference to a Bertolucci film in the same line is nothing. “Beasts” finds her rhyming the first word of her first verse over 13 different times all while attacking police and political corruption in true Hill fashion. After all, it’s not just the rhymes for Hill, it’s the substance of the message as well. The one song she is most remembered for on The Score, though, is “Killing Her Softly,” where she doesn’t even rap. Strangely, this is also the one track that didn’t age well. Or maybe it’s just overplayed. With a simple, languid beat, the song walks a difficult balance between sexy and sleepy. Where it falls is debatable. Regardless, it still gets radio play and launched her career as a singer. The rest is history. Yet, delving into The Score details the possibility of another storyline that never happened.
Wyclef is the glue of the Fugees. His personality and production skills–both well rooted in an eclectic taste in music and culture – hold the group together. Whether he’s the street-wise Brooklynite on “Family Business,” bringing the bullish but spiritual attitude of Jamaican dancehall MCs on “FU-GEE-LA,” or dropping vivid streams of dark paranoid imagery on “Zealots,” Wyclef plays to his strengths as an imaginative lyricist who is willing to adjust his personality according to the mood. Admittedly, his raps on The Score often times come off clunky, forcing rhymes that aren’t there (“That’s the voice of the kid, that’s the kidnapper/ I do my work and then I catch my ticket to Jamaica.”) but Wyclef utilizes these shortcomings towards his advantage through his personality. He comes off as someone closer to the diverse culture and backgrounds that make up the streets of Brooklyn than most rappers spitting about the drug game in BK. By embracing all sides of his personality – Brooklynite and West-Indian immigrant son – Jean helps push The Score forward while nodding to hip hop’s diverse past (see: Reggie Rockstone, KRS-One, et al.). Never too street, never too intellectual, and wielding a hefty bag full of 70’s soul and Jamaican 45s, Wyclef finds a delicate balance between the very different styles of Lauryn and Pras and makes it look easy.
In every neighborhood in Brooklyn there is a guy exactly like Pras. You might know the type. He’s not the sharpest or smartest dude on the block but he works hard to tighten those rhymes, read his books and stay out of trouble. The result on The Score? He keeps The Fugees grounded and in turn, thrives off Lauryn’s intellectualism and Wyclef’s complex personality. It’s no surprise that on his only successful solo single –“Ghetto Superstar”– Pras enlisted another complex persona in Ol’ Dirty Bastard to balance out his own workingman style. Without Pras, The Score would ambitiously fly over our heads. Instead, we rap along to silly lines like, “Starlight to starbrite the freaks come out at night,” because Lauryn is always too fast for us and Wyclef’s choppy streams of consciousness too complicated.
Did the Fugees have any imitators? They were few and far between, if at all. How could they be imitated, though? Each with their own, unique idiosyncrasies followed no set formula and yet worked so well together as a trio. Lazy music journalism will lump the Fugees in with the likes of other underground, alternative hip hop of the time such as Mos Def or the Roots for their thoughtful lyricism and use of soul samples. The Fugees, though, had another foot within their own, darkly imaginative realm where the urban plight of ’90s New York was metaphorically re-interpreted as something of a voodoo-Wild-West where paranoid mask-wearing MCs dodged bullets amongst cops seen as nether-world monsters. Sure, it’s not all perfect. The skits feel out of place and the guest spots are nothing to write home about. Yet few albums have been able to exercise such deep realms of their imaginations to the extent of The Score while maintaining such pop-smarts and sharply critical lyricism.