Ready or not, in 1996 the Fugees dropped The Score and scored an opus masterpiece that achieved massive commercial and crossover success and is now considered a classic album.
The trio of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel formed in the late 1980’s in South Orange, New Jersey. However, the Fugees are not a story of local kids gone worldly; rather through upbringing, musical alchemy and perhaps sheer divine intervention, the Fugees had already internalized a world of music by the time they changed their name from Tranzlator Crew to Fugees.
Their debut album Blunted on Reality scored a cadre of hits with offbeat and quirky hip-hop-reggae instrumentation and vocals with tracks like “Vocab” which has a bump-along guitar-based vibe that melds old school Jamaican chatting with the vocal gymnastics of American hip-hop emcees. The ‘Bootleg Versions’ were a series of remixed album singles released alongside Blunted on Reality, some of which achieved greater popularity than the original album cuts.
Nonetheless, the Fugees had achieved the attention of the hip-hop and popular music communities and a spot on your local radio rotation; at least enough for Ruffhouse Records to give the crew a $135,000 advance and the resources required to make a second album. The group used the money for recording equipment and set up a studio in Wyclef Jean’s uncle’s basement, which they christened “Booga Basement”, and hunkered down and recorded the new album for the latter half of 95. The trio handled most of their own writing and production which was impressive as they were quite young at the time – Hill was 20, Pras 23 and Jean the elder statesman at age 25. But they also collaborated with Diamond D, Saleem Remi and Jerry Duplessis.
Released in Feburary 1996, Lauryn Hill described The Score as “an audio film. It’s like how radio was back in the 1940s. It tells a story, and there are cuts and breaks in the music. It’s almost like a hip-hop version of Tommy, like what The Who did for rock music.”
The opening “Red Intro” is immediately deeper and more substantial and cinematic than anything from Blunted on Reality and makes one wonder what happened to the slightly off-key, popcorn version of the early Fugees.
The Scoredraws us in even more with the flagship track “Ready or Not” which uses The Delfonics 1968 hit as a reference point. Wycelf Jean leads us into a dreamlike world of storytelling that could just as easily describe an urban underbelly as his adopted New Jersey hometown.
“Zealots” begins with an eerie reinterpretation of the sample from The Flamingos 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes For You”. The Fugees use of this Flamingos’ sample foreshadows the way in which horror film directors of movies like ‘Black Mirror’ or Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ have since re-contextualized popular music to make us legitimately uncomfortable in our familiarity. This point of tension runs throughout The Score.
The first half of The Scoreunfurls with lyrical political commentary, verbal wordplay and sing-able hooks on tracks “The Beast”, “Fu-Gee-La” and “Family Business”. The second half of the album begins in earnest when Hill softens the tone with a heartfelt and soulful rendition of the Roberta Flack classic “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. It is buoyed by the familiar sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Bonita Applebum” perfectly rooting her version in contemporary hip-hop sensibilities.
Lauryn Hill is unquestionably the breakout star of The Score. As a teenager on the Fugees debut, Hill played her role as an equal part of the group. However, on The Score, her ability to both sing and rap in addition to her general vibe, character and appearance clearly placed her as the central figure on this album and the album cover reinforces this perception.
The album wraps up with another nod to its reggae forebears with a signature Haitian-infused version of Bob Marley classic “No Woman, No Cry”.
Upon its release, The Score was a commercial success, peaking at number one on both the Billboard 200 and the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. A year and a half after its release, The Scorewas certified six times platinum sales by the Recording Industry Association of America and the same year The album won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. The following year, the album was included in The Source’s 100 best rap albums list.
The Score regurgitated classic doo-wop, soul, R&B and reggae into a contemporary album that was a pivotal player in the evolution of a new breed of hip-hop and neo-soul, a musical amalgam that has carried over into the 21st century influencing artists like Tom Misch and Jorja Smith, a testament to the album’s lasting legacy.
By Joe Lapan, from Songbyrd Record Café and Music House and our Classic Album Sunday Washington DC Host.