As I continue to reflect on the past year, I love to remember great concerts. I had the great privilege of seeing the magnificent Ms. Lauryn Hill last spring at the Commodore. It may no longer have bouncy floors, but it’s still my favorite Vancouver venue. The best surprise of the night – after discovering it was her birthday and having the crowd burst into song for her – was L. Boogie’s presentation of material from The Score. She did a total of 5 songs from the album and owned everything. Regardless of whether verses were originally spat by Wyclef or Pras, she would authoritatively rap every bit of the song at nearly double speed. The songs lost some of their groove this way – the familiar rap felt a little less melodic than I was used to – and yet it had a new kind of forceful power.
Anyway, this is not a concert blog, but seeing Lauryn Hill in 2011 brought her work with the Fugees back into my regular playlists over the past several months, and most recently I even made The Score my alarm CD to wake up to. At Lauryn’s show, I was reminded not only how deeply Miseducation shaped and spoke to my adolescent self, but how her role in the Fugees introduced me a world of socially conscious rap. Not that I would have called it that in Jr. High, but even in 1996 I could tell The Score was different than Snoop’s Doggy Style.
Suprisingly, it was never Lauryn alone that made The Fugees attractive to a 13 year old white girl from the burbs. Wyclef Jean allows his sense of humor shine through even the most serious verse, giving a sense of playfulness in “Fu-Gee-La” especially. Pras sounds like a man with a lot of anger, but is too stoned to do anything about it. Together they made a loveable trio who though clearly intelligent and socially aware, never lost their ability to have a good time. When I bought the album, I had only heard the two radio-played covers: “Killing Me Softly” and “No Woman No Cry”. Although hearing Ms. Hill sing the Roberta Flack tune would alter whatever I might have been doing, it was Wyclef’s guitar and vocals on the Bob Marley cover that drew the money out of my pocket.
At the time, I didn’t know much about these refugees (other than having loved Hill’s performance as Rita in Sister Act II), but soon the first half of the album would open up my understanding of what music could be. “How Many Mics”, “Ready Or Not”, and “Zealots” quickly became my favourite 13ish minutes. To this day, I love how the three MCs share the songs; No one gets more mic time than anyone else, even though there are admittedly “too many MC’s, not enough mics”. References are thick and plenty, whether it’s to Marcus Garvey or Corey Hart, and rhymes are effortlessly smooth. Choruses are crooned, and I momentarily forget that this isn’t a classic R&B album… That is until “Ready or Not” reminds us, which is where we hear my favourite Lauryn line ever: “So while you imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone.” Ok, one of my favourites. She’s got a lot (oh yeah). 😉
It took me some time to appreciate “The Beast”, even though I loved to imitate the beastly-noises that Wyclef makes. I don’t think, at the time, that I picked up on the comic-feel of this song, even though it’s constantly referencing super heroes and sci-fi characters. Now when I listen to this frustration rant against greed and corruption in government and policing.
Like Miseducation, most songs on The Score are punctuated by spoken scenes emphasizing the down-to-earth style of the Fugees. “The Beast” is followed by possibly the oddest, and weirdly racist sketch, set in a Chinese restaurant that is “like burger king, have it your way”.
At a younger age, both “The Mask” and “Cowboys” always felt awkward to me. Now I love “The Mask” because it is positively brilliant, showing off the Fugees ability to use extended metaphor. Cowboys is also an example of this, although less groovy. “Cowboys” allows the three MCs to have some fun with the plethora of Western clichés and cowboy media references. It’s a bringing together of Reggae and Country in a way that I can stomach, and on top of it, critiquing drug culture. Best line is from Pras: “F*** the Sheriff, I shot John Wayne”.
Fu-Gee-Las (the original and the three remixes provided) never get old to me. Sometimes I’ll plan to skip one of the versions, but it’s hard – they’re each unique enough to require a listen. Actually, I take that back. Now that I’m listening through it all again, I know the Sly & Robbie mix the least. I think I would tend to listen to the first Refugee Camp Remix and than skip ahead to “Mista Mista”, which is eerily beautiful. When I was younger I thought it was a joke – every time Wyclef answers himself with “Hell No Mutha*****”, it would make me giggle. Now I hear it as a musical conversation that can be seen on a regular basis in my neighborhood, and the questions so many of us in any city have to ask ourselves: when do we help those we see in need, and what is helping? Money? Food? A fix to forget?
Finally, they end on a happy note, with the last Fu-Gee-La remix. It’s possible that 4 versions of the same song on a full length album is overkill, but at least it’s a good, catchy song. Or maybe we should just consider ourselves lucky that in The Score you received both an LP and a single. Either way, it’s not worth a complaint. If you’re not sick of it yet, you should probably watch this video:
Earlier I mentioned that all 3 Fugees share the microphone well. Still, I can’t help but notice that Ms. Hill is already hitting the hardest. And she gets away with some of the best words. I mean, Poli-trick-cians? And rhyming galaxy with phallic-sy? She is a bold and clever phenomenon, and high on my list of hopes for 2012-and-beyond is a full comeback for this talented woman we grew to love, respect, and groove to. Until then, I’ll keep returning to The Score, far more than a majority of rap albums from the mid-90’s – the height of the East-West tensions (Tupac died later that year). While so much of rap was focused on destruction and self-promotion, The Fugees attempted to spit some positivity and call out the larger systems to blame, rather than simply slamming their own competition. When they did address their peers in rap, there was always a legitimate reason, punctuated by Hill’s verse in “Family Business” – “my army is trained, you never find us beefin’ in vain”. This a record that is aging well, and may never lose its relevance.