By 1996, the gangster forces of hip hop had won the commercial battle for the hearts and minds of listeners. As late as 1992, hip hop still seemed like a big tent operation where the Native Tongues collective (Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul) and West Coast gangsta rap pioneers (NWA, Ice T, Schooly D) were equally profitable and important. But by 1996, the golden age of hip hop was decisively over. The rise of hack gangsters and hustlers and slick pop showmen like Puff Daddy ensured that hip hop would never be a artistically diverse force in the market place again. But when the Fugees released their second (and last) album The Score, they re-captured that brief moment in the late 80s and early 90s when everything seemed permissible in hip hop. The Score, which celebrates its 15 year anniversary next week, is the sound of what hip hop could have been if the major labels hadn’t relentlessly exploited tales of ghetto violence and black-on-black crime for white consumers with disposable income.
From a production standpoint, this record is just golden. The organic instrumentation—live drums, fretless bass, clean guitar, classic sample material—is so rich and warm that it still sounds like exceptional. Outside of The Roots, I can’t think of another rap group that sounded so effortlessly smooth. But the production only serves to soundtrack the actual songs, most of which are stone-cold classic examples of minimal hip hop. The songwriting on the album generally takes two forms: intentional mass appeals (“Fu-Gee-La,” “Killing Me Softly,” and “Ready or Not”) and blunted rap tracks where a smooth beat creates a cipher for the three principles to trade rhymes (“The Beast,” “Family Business,” and “The Score“).
The pop hits, of course, command the largest real estate in the public consciousness regarding this album. Being alive in 1996 meant listening to “Killing Me Softly” in every possible venue: you couldn’t get through an afternoon of MTV without having to watch the goofy video, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Lauryn Hill’s buttery voice cooing over that stark beat. It’s a little surprising that the song became a hit because it’s so incredibly minimal. The verses just feature Hill and that hard beat playing off one another. The album’s other singles—”Fu-Gee-La” and “Ready or Not”—are both excellent examples of how well the Fugees could craft a pop song by incorporating elements that made the band unique among rap groups. The only clunker among the singles is the pointless cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”
In time, I have ultimately become more interested in the straight rap tracks, while acknowledging that the pop hits are as classic as their legacy would suggest. Here, on tracks like “The Score” and “The Beast,” we get the best of the Fugees’ egalitarian experiment: each emcee gets a shot to prove his or her worth on the mic. Of the three emcees, Lauryn Hill proves to be the most potent, the most flexible rapper of the crew. Unlike many other women in hip hop, Hill didn’t feel the need to match her male counterpoints in the game with her aggression. But she holds her own just fine: ”Turning boys to men again/With estrogen dreams/Release blues, yellows, and greens/From Brownsville to Queens.” She doesn’t have to embody the clichéd characters of the sexless gangster monster (Da Brat) or the bracingly angry slut (Lil Kim); she is just as powerful being herself: intelligent, witty, righteous, tough, sensitive. I should say, though, that Pras is a better rapper than you perhaps remember: his distinct cadence and vocal delivery allow him to effortless chew on words or bounce off them with equal energy. Lyrically, these tracks concern your standard conscious hip hop tropes: representations of race in the media, the clear divide between real and whack emcees, the metaphorical use of violence, appeals to some holy deity or another. Certainly nothing that we hadn’t heard by 1996, but a stark reminder that hip hop ransom notes from third-rate emcees at that time where depressingly limited. Again, this is everything that hip hop had been for a short lived generation of rappers: innovative, clever, deadly serious, ambitious.
While our standard narrative about The Score relies on commenting on the impressive songwriting, the story of The Score is largely a story of what happened after the album. We like to think of classic albums as somehow generative; they beget other masterpieces, they sow bountiful fields. And for most bands who record a classic album, this is the case. But there are some albums that are so good that they sow fallow ground. In an Aeroplane Over the Sea is a perfect example. After it’s tremendous success, Jeff Mangum disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel and quit life all together. While The Fugees seemed like they would be immune to this problem, they actually struggled mightily after the album’s release. By 2000, all three members had been relegated to the sidelines of pop culture trivia. Wyclef Jean became a critical darling of bland adult contemporary hip hop and eventually become a potentially serious candidate for Haiti’s presidency following last year’s devastating earthquake. Hill recorded a solo masterpiece, lost her mind, and quit the scene altogether. Her erratic and stunningly arrogant public behavior became so untenable that she’s become something of a recluse. And Pras, of course, later . . . Wait, what did Pras do? I mean, besides that super-catchy single for Bulworth that featured Mya and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Considering the sad fate of these musicians, The Score, then, is the story of perfection briefly attained; it is the story of the cultural stars aligning for just a flashing moment in favor of three immensely talented musicians.