When talking about classic albums it’s hard to move through the landscape without name-checking a breakthrough album from New Jersey. The Fugees sophomore record is a fluid set of tracks that sounded like a classic from day one, and continues to remain a benchmark of alternative beats. The Score is one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever.
The lineup of Pras Michel, Wyclef Jean, and Miss Lauryn Hill had previously released an album that was critically underrated and commercially unremarkable. Blunted on Reality was, in reflection, a valuable misstep to have happened from the debuting trio. The flopping debut removed pressure of expectation and afforded the trio space and time to function on its own terms. Chris Schwartz of Rufflehouse Records offered the band $135,000 and a second chance to make good on their potential. The Fugees took full artistic control, and invested the money in recording equipment, which would be installed in Wyclef Jean’s uncle’s basement.
Recording sessions down in the ‘Booga Basement’ started in June of ’95 and were a relaxed affair. According to the artists, songs came together in a very calm, almost unconscious manner where the only incentive was to make music. Despite this casual approach to the workplace, concentration remained sharp and soon the songs appeared to follow a unified theme. Conversational breaks, introductions and interruptions between musical tracks actually stitched progress together and balanced broad strokes with finer details. “It’s almost like a hop-hop version of Tommy, like what The Who did for rock music,” Lauryn Hill said in pre-millennium interview.
Sharing production duties, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean performed a string of miracles.
Themes of the album were not unusual to genre. The grit, spit, and grim realities of urban living are documented here, just as they were being documented on both coasts, (Tupac was still alive at this time). But this was a world of more insane, topsy-turvy rhymes that took hyper-reality to borderline surrealism: “Conflicts with night sticks, Illegal sales districts/Hand-picked lunatics, keep poli-trick-ians rich / Heretics push narcotics amidst its risks and frisks / Cool cliques throw bricks but seldom hit targets / Private-DIC sell hits, like porno flicks do chicks./ The 666 cut W.I.C. like Newt Gringrich sucks dick.”
Musically, this was a tapestry of samples and beats. Whilst there are some passages of original instrumentation, this is primarily an album of wonderfully refracted tunes. Sharing production duties, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean performed a string of miracles, and the dynamic is one of ease and instant access. None of the tension that would lead to the trio’s impending breakdown is evidenced here. The easy approach, and evident love for source material produced some of the most notable tunes in hip hop and urban music history.
“Killing Me Softly”–the song made famous by Roberta Flack in 1972 is made even more canonical here, becoming the album’s best-selling single. Hill’s vocal presence is staggering–but it represents only one dimension of the re-sculptured version. Sampling A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” (which was, itself, built on a riff from the Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band”) laces contrasting elements together to produce a texturally complex tune. Receiving a Grammy Award for Best Performance By Duo or Group was one of many awards won by this track alone.
The sense of time and space across the album is considerably expansive. “Ready Or Not” is a beautiful synth-bed of emotional content. It’s sits in sequence like a shimmering black elixir. The cinematic scale of emotions is reflected in the accompanying video: “I play my enemies like a game of chess,” raps Hill from the engine room of a naval ship in military maneuvers. Helicopters fly overhead and a string of shapeless acts of aggression and action happen in the shadows. The Fugees are evading a controlling force–this echoes in all aspects of the album, from production, presentation, and submission to the audience, the boldness of statement is not subtle. “Ready or not… here I come.”
What must be addressed about the Fugees is the lineup and division of duties. Spare two or three exceptions to rule (Arrested Development, Digable Planets) this was the only group where a female had equal input to the integrity and direction of the project. Hip hop, in 1996, wasn’t known as a level playing field for all genders. There was no ridiculous sense that Hill was ‘allowed’ input, the trio had come together organically as equals and gender was an issue referenced only by commentators, not from within the band. Other girls may have relied on bikinis and eyeliner, other boys still referenced “bitches” and female body parts with varying degrees of severity–but there was none of that here. This was a modern album driven by young artists with enough self-confidence to assert themselves as male or female, but uninterested in one-dimensional sexuality.
This was a modern album uninterested in one-dimensional sexuality.
Gender equality wasn’t as much a concern as it was a state of play, but there were many other aspects of social conscience that portray the trio as engaged with their environment. As timeless as the music now sounds, some of the lyrical references perfectly date the album as a solid depiction of it’s time. The Oklahoma bombing, and Connie Chung’s controversial opinions are explored, Newt Gringrich was Speaker of the House, and is subject to ridicule. Sadly, the timeless issue of gang violence and police harassment of black kids is an evergreen subject in the USA. The social passions on display here would later stand the litmus test of authenticity when Wyclef Jean pursued the job of President of Haiti. The Fugees cared, for real.
Critically appreciated, The Score won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, and received countless accolades across the media in myriad “Album of the Year” and “Best Albums Ever” lists. Commercially, it hit platinum or gold in every country of release. Culturally it’s an album that did more than surpass the usual definition of ‘classic’. Yes, it hits the mark of sounding timeless whilst best representing it’s time, but it also achieves something more. Lauryn Hill went on to record the flawlessly good Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Pras released Ghetto Superstar, and Wyclef Jean involved himself in music, charities, and politics. As a band the three were innovators, inspiring copycats and leading hip hop to a place where ‘alternative philosophies’ became mainstream perceptions. As solo artists the three went on to expand the gene pool for the sensibility that they defined here.
Simply put, in an expanding landscape of classic albums, The Score is a rare and constant point of reference that others will navigate by for a very long time.
IMAGES: Rufflehouse Records