By Chris Crymes
In 1996, hip-hop needed a new hero. Tupac Shakur had been killed that September, and Christopher Wallace, or The Notorious B.I.G., would follow less than a year later. Top songs at the time included a potpourri of gentrified genres being slowly taken back by musicians of color with the Billboard Top 100 being filled with the likes of Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige and The Tony Rich Project. All of these projects did tend to sound like the usual chart-topping fare. Crisply recorded instruments moving with the sterile precision only studios and studio musicians can create. In a mainstream world with only one idea of a rap album, The Fugees would climb the charts and make their claim in history with an album that told a story instead of just cold, hard bars.
Lauryn Hill described “The Score” to interviewers in 1996 as “an audio film. It’s like 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.”
That comparison to an album and a film is perfect. Not to speak ill of the album creation process, but putting a film together is a perfect blending of a million different art forms and that’s exactly what makes “The Score” so special.
Combining acrobatic rhyme schemes, hauntingly beautiful melodies, world-class features, bombastic characters and uncompromising depictions of life in the ghetto, The Fugees build a world of audio variety to construct this musical narrative.
In “The Beast,” Hill showcases her talents for flow and brilliant lyricism, not only keeping up with but outrapping her fellow bandmates for the whole song before ending in a hilarious sketch where two members are attacked by a kung-fu master.
Undeniable classics, “Fu-Gee-La,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “Ready or Not” blend the group’s approaches even further, resulting in these songs becoming the album’s chart toppers.
But the chart toppers aren’t all the album offers. “Family Business” belongs on any 90s rap playlist for verses alone. A personal favorite, “The Mask,” waxes poetic about the requirements of physical and metaphorical masks in the age we live in. “The Score” carries an assortment of genres, sounds and audio sampling.
“The Score” also presents an alternative view of a group hotly debated in the western world: refugees. The years preceding “The Score” housed two tragedies that led to mass exoduses: 1994’s Rwandan genocide at the hands of armed militias and the murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. These events led to refugee reception that mirrors the recent refugee crises from places like Syria. One of the most egregious examples of anti-refugee sentiments coming from the UK paper The Sun, calling refugees “cockroaches” and a burden on the free nations they seek help from.
“The Score” dared to depict refugees in an almost mythical light. Like in “Ready or Not,” when Pras raps, “I, refugee from Guantanamo Bay / Dance around the border, like I’m Cassius Clay.” But the refugees will not take to their prescribed places in society quietly. An average “place” for an immigrant is to take to life and pray that no one notices them due to prejudiced views on them. A life one is proud of is one that is out of reach for many, and that is the titular “Score.” In this album told like a Blaxploitation movie, The Fugees hold up the American system like a casino heist to get “The Score” of a life everyone deserves.
Sadly, this was the last album The Fugees released. Members Wyclef Jean and Pras continued careers to varying success, but neither would reach the same accolades as their fellow member Lauryn Hill. To me, Hill’s immense talents make this project come together so perfectly. She embodies the warrior poet; attacking beats with lyrics so smooth and elegant, one would think they were developed by Mercedes. Pepper in her singing abilities that go toe to toe with any of the all-time greats and you have the making of possibly the most underrated artist of all time. Her solo follow-up album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” won the coveted Best Album Grammy award in 1998, and lives as one of time’s greatest albums to many.
If you’re in for a legendary hip-hop album, stream “The Score” on all major streaming services.