Happy 20th Anniversary to Fugees’ sophomore album The Score, originally released February 13, 1996.
Over the course of hip-hop’s 40-plus year history, the mixed-gender group has been a rare breed indeed. The Juice Crew, Arrested Development, Digable Planets, and today’s subject, the Fugees, are the high profile, immediately recognizable examples. However, what fundamentally differentiates the Fugees from their peers is the prominent role that their female member adopted within the broader group dynamic. Unlike Roxanne Shanté, Dionne Farris, Sister Paulette, and Ladybug Mecca, Lauryn Hill shared—and oftentimes, commanded—center stage, by means of her own ambition and her bandmates’ deferential respect for her many indisputable talents.
The East Orange, NJ native Hill formed the original incarnation of the group, Tyme, with her Brooklyn-born high school chum Prakazrel “Pras” Michel in the late 1980s, and the pair joined forces with Pras’ cousin, the Haiti-born Wyclef Jean, shortly thereafter in 1990. The trio changed their name to Tranzlator Crew in 1993 and subsequently to the Fugees, before releasing their debut LP Blunted on Reality in 1994 via Ruffhouse, an independent label distributed through Columbia Records. An underrated gem of lo-fi, bohemian boom-bap, Blunted failed to resonate critically and commercially, despite two stellar singles, the buoyant “Nappy Heads” (Remix) and the acoustic-tinged “Vocab.”
Despite the initial disappointment with Blunted’s stagnant sales, the record did reinforce that the talented trio’s chemistry on the mic contained the seeds of a future breakthrough, provided that a few more stars—and songs—could be aligned in their favor. The staff at Ruffhouse were believers, which explains why the label granted the group a generous six-figure advance in anticipation of their sophomore effort.
Wisely, the threesome used a good portion of the advance to upgrade the sound equipment in Booga Basement, the makeshift recording studio that Wyclef and his cousin Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis built in the latter’s basement of his East Orange home. As Wyclef described it to Rolling Stone, the DIY recording space “sort of gives you a Tuff Gong feeling,” a nod to Bob Marley’s legendary Kingston, Jamaica studio.
Recorded in the latter half of 1995, the Fugees’ follow-up was, as Wyclef explained to MTV, “the big payback” inspired by the group’s shared commitment to “settling the score for those who slept on the Fugees.” Flaunting a considerably more polished and kaleidoscopic sound imbued with soul, reggae, and folk along with its fundamental hip-hop core, The Score seamlessly straddled the seldom achieved line between street credibility and coffeehouse charm.
Although both Wyclef and Pras upped their lyrical game on The Score, the dynamic and precociously self-assured Hill, who was just 20 years old at the time of the album’s release, made the most impressive leap of all. Liberated to flex her venerable vocal prowess, lyrical dexterity and incisive songwriting throughout the sophomore song suite, L-Boogie’s contributions across the album are nothing short of revelatory, not to mention compelled by a noble calling. “If you want to call us ‘alternative,’ so be it,” she declared to Vibe magazine in a March 1996 interview. “We’re trying to bring musicality back to the hood.”
Defined by its subdued soundscapes, inventive use of samples, catchy-as-all-hell hooks, and multitude of sonic inspirations, The Score resonates with a distinctive sound and eclecticism all its own. Lyrically, the album is chock-full of clever rhyme schemes, memorable turns of phrase, and countless metaphors and similes that namecheck a motley roll call of pop culture luminaries like Alec Baldwin, Buju Banton, Dick Van Dyke, Menudo, Tommy Mottola, Paul McCartney, Carlos Santana, Seal, John Travolta, and Stevie Wonder, among others.
Irresistibly addictive first single “Fu-Gee-La” is the finest of the album’s several fine moments, with Hill flashing her best Teena Marie impression in the song’s chorus, as she confirms the group’s mission of getting heads “super high off the Fu-Gee-La.” Not entirely sure why Ruffhouse thought it was a good idea to toss three mediocre remixes of the track onto the end of the album, instead of simply letting them live on the maxi-single, but their curious presence doesn’t undermine the allure of the original.
The album’s other standouts can be found in the opening three tracks, all of which revolve around the group’s assertions of microphone superiority. Evoking Black Moon’s 1993 underground hit “How Many MC’s,” the braggadocious album opener “How Many Mics” represents one of the greatest verbal displays the trio ever committed to wax, as the trio show and prove that inventive rhymeplay is most definitely their natural calling.
The mellifluously melodic, Delfonics and Enya sampling “Ready or Not” showcases Hill’s confidence and sharp tongue, as she slays those who dare to challenge her with unforgettably piercing jabs like “I can do what you do, easy, believe me / Fronting niggas give me heebie-jeebies / So while you're imitating Al Capone, I'll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone.” Uh, “defecating on your microphone?” Well, hot dayum, Lauryn.
“Zealots” lifts The Flamingos’ classic doo-wop ballad “I Only Eyes Have Eyes for You” to glorious effect, as Wyclef explores the inherent conflict between so-called realness and commercial gain in the rap game, proclaiming “for you biting zealots, your raps are cacophonic / Hypocrite, critic, but deep inside you wish you had the pop hit.”
Though admittedly not The Score’s most original or interesting fare, the group’s accessible, “Bonita Applebum” indebted reinvention of Roberta Flack’s classic version of “Killing Me Softly,” is what propelled the LP to mega-million sales and secured household name status for the Fugees.
Rightfully so, Hill emerged as the primary beneficiary of the newfound worldwide recognition. In a 2012 interview with Complex, producer Jerry Wonder explored the genesis of the cover, explaining that during the recording process, “Pras came up and was like ‘Yo let’s do a cover of ‘Killing Me Softly.’’ Lauryn agreed to sing the song. We messed with the record a bit and made it hard. Some idea came up where we just said ‘You know what, let’s see how we can create break beats.’ And of course, we all love A Tribe Called Quest and we went in like ‘Okay, let’s cut that sample.’ And that’s what we did.”
Additional highlights include the Diamond D produced title track that lifts the guitar melody from Cymande’s “Dove,” and the dirge-like “The Beast,” which laments the black community’s victimization at the hands of rampant police corruption and harassment. Though it fails to constitute essential listening, the cover of Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” warrants attention nevertheless, if for no other reason than to hear how Wyclef riffs on the original, swapping Marley’s Trenchtown with the group’s native stomping grounds of Brooklyn and Jersey.
When The Score won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, no one could have been faulted for believing that the Fugees were poised for even bigger accomplishments in the years to come. But their newfound fame and the accumulating pressure of heavier expectations began to weigh all-too heavy on the group. Unable to resolve their irreconcilable differences, the group disbanded due to various creative differences, and allegedly also due to Wyclef and Lauryn’s tumultuous romantic relationship that ultimately made the continuation of their professional bond unsustainable.
Both Wyclef and Hill enjoyed solo success shortly after The Score’s global triumph with their respective solo debuts, The Carnival and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the latter proving a bona fide masterpiece of modern-day soul that transformed Hill into a global superstar. And while the ship on a future Fugees reunion has all but sailed, with nary a glimmer of hope offered by any of the group members, we’ll always be able to return to The Score to relive the threesome’s winsome, albeit ephemeral glory days.