Fugees' 'The Score' at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

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Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Pras of the Fugees on Aug. 16, 1996 in Chicago, Il.

By 1996, the world had seen plenty of hip-hop blockbusters. Some of these albums were poppy, some were gangsta, and some were given that slightly condescending label “socially conscious.” Few, if any, checked all three boxes, and none did so more successfully -- artistically or commercially -- than the sophomore effort from Fugees.

Released 20 years ago today (Feb. 13, 1996), The Score was a rap album for everyone. Recorded almost entirely in New Jersey’s “Booga Basement” studio, located in Fugees musical mastermind Wyclef Jean’s uncle’s home, the LP comes packed with hard-ass battle raps, nerdy pop-culture references, political rants, spiritual musings, outlaw fantasies, and much more.

There’s real instrumentation for the rock fans, a fairly obvious Bob Marley cover for stoners and college kids, and enough soulful vocals from figurehead Lauryn Hill to court middle-aged listeners still on the fence about hip-hop. Clef, Hill, and third member Pras Michael -- the man responsible for getting the whole thing going in the late ‘80s -- were militant and melodic, soldiers for change and students of pop music. Following the disappointing sales of their shouty 1994 debut, Blunted on Reality, Fugees knew they needed to recalibrate their weapons if they were going to mount a mainstream invasion.

The Score is raw storytelling,” Clef writes in his 2012 memoir Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story. “Our recordings were pure -- no tricks in sight -- and it connected with music fans around the world.”

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That’s an understatement. Thanks to its three massive singles -- “Fu-Gee-La,” the Roberta Flack cover “Killing Me Softly,” and “Ready or Not” -- The Score topped the Billboard 200 and went six-times platinum by October 1997. If what Wyclef writes in his book was true, fans were responding not just to the Caribbean-flavored thinking man’s boom-bap found throughout the record, but also the romantic chemistry between him and Hill, his secret lover throughout this period.

“It was like we knew it wasn’t going to work from the start, but we couldn’t shy away,” writes Clef, who was married to another woman at the time of the affair. “It’s not that it was wrong; it’s just that it was too good to be true. The way we related we couldn’t sustain because it was this whirlwind of creativity, this success, this performance. It was a fantasy that we engaged in because it was almost as if the music and the group and what we were doing drew us in.”

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Part Bonnie-and-Clyde story, part “audio film,” as Hill famously called it, The Score embodies everything that made Fugees one of the era’s most important acts. The trio takes its name from “refugees,” a word that didn’t just refer to the fact that Wyclef, like Pras’ parents, was born in Haiti. In Booga Basement, these three misfit MCs took refuge in each other’s talents and musical curiosity, and with the help of producers like Saleem Remi and Clef’s cousin Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, they made music with a genuine community feel.

Unfortunately, the communal vibes didn’t last. Following The Score, the group disintegrated, and all three members went off and did their own thing. Clef has released a series of solo albums and dabbled in Haitian politics. Hill released an undisputed masterpiece with 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and then largely disappeared from the public eye. Pras has dropped a pair of LPs and gotten into film production. The three haven’t performed together since 2006, and perhaps due to lingering hostilities following the dissolution of Wyclef and Hill’s relationship, there’s been no recent indication that a third Fugees album might happen.

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Regardless of whether it winds up being the group’s swan song, The Score remains a stone-cold classic and summertime staple. Here’s a track-by-track review.

“Red Intro”: Before the music pops off, Ras Baraka, son of poet Amiri Baraka and current mayor of Newark, sets the scene with a ticked-off, defiant rant about wannabe gangsters and shady music-biz types. Best of all, he references the title of nearly every track that’s to follow.

“How Many Mics”: “How many mics do we rip on the daily?” asks Wyclef in the hook. The answer here is three, as each Fugee takes his or her turn in the spotlight. They work in order of descending lyrical dexterity, with Lauryn slinging a string of killer disses at kids who rhyme for “all the wrong reasons.” Clef sees her ColecoVision and Go Ask Alice references and raises her some funny bars about iron-induced constipation and Seal’s 1990 hit “Crazy.” Last and least (but still pretty solid) is Pras, who raps ably but less elegantly over the spare bass line.

“Ready or Not”: Built around an ice-cold Enya sample, this U.K. chart-topper and one-time favorite song of presidential hopeful Barack Obama is another example of the Fugees going the divide-and-conquer route. Clef and Pras bookend the track with relatively unfocused verses, leaving L-Boogie to once again attack whack MCs and deliver the finest lines. Her best is viciously witty and a little vulgar: “So while you're imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone.”

“Zealots”: The MVP here is Wyclef, who nicks the melody from Willie Williams’ reggae hit “Armagideon Time” on the hook and handles two of the four verses. In the first, Clef leaps from JFK to astrophysics to Rockwell’s 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Hill nearly keeps pace by bringing the Pauli exclusion principle and Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” into play. All three Fugees had a hand in the production, which means they all deserve credit for singling out the most otherworldly snippet of the doo-wop staple “I Only Have Eyes For You” that they possibly could’ve sampled.

“The Beast”: The trio gets political with a relatively hook-less look at police brutality, government surveillance, and institutional racism. It’s a vision of hell on earth that’s already come to pass, and yet Fugees create a nightmare you can nod along to. The track ends with the famous “Chinese restaurant” skit, which, depending on how easily you’re offended, is either a harmless non-PC goof or wince-worthy proof that even this enlightened bunch sometimes got it wrong.

“Fu-Gee-La”: Lauryn adds extra toughness and soul as she swipes the hook from Teena Marie’s 1988 hit “Ooo La La La” and makes it forever her own. Described by producer Salaam Remi as the template on which much of The Score was based, “Fu-Gee-La” offers ghetto philosophizing from Clef, self-affirmations from Lauryn, and dependability from Pras.

“Family Business”: An uneasy Spanish guitar rolls beneath the beat as Clef, Lauryn, and guests Omega and John Forte ruminate on the treacherousness of the world and the importance of family. Amid fine verses from everyone -- especially Hill, who reps James Taylorand Judge Ito -- Clef best captures the contradictions of inner-city living with the third verse, a criminal fantasy delivered in a high-strung voice that chafes against the laid-back beat.

“Killing Me Softly”: Until 1:27, there’s little more than Lauryn’s voice and a drum machine. The bass drops around the same time Clef does his “one time,” “two times” thing, and with just those little tweaks, Fugees bring Roberta Flack’s 1973 soul classic into the hip-hop era. The song was huge in the U.S., where it made Hill a superstar, and in the U.K., where it was the top-selling single of 1996. Without the context of Hill’s relationship with Clef, it’s a lovely cover that maintains the spirit of the original while taking the material in new directions. Listened to now, in light of subsequent revelations about their romance, it’s doubly deadly.

“The Score”: Perhaps aware that they were crafting classics, the Fugees sample themselves -- and a few other tunes, among them Cymande’s moody funk gem “Dove” -- as they once again assert their lyrical prowess. In her verse, Lauryn devastates and soothes, comparing herself first to a bullet and later to a “natural hallucinogen” that turns “boys to men again.” Yes, that’s a Boyz II Men reference. No, it’s not corny.

“The Mask”: According to the chorus, everyone wears masks -- but not our realer-than-real heroes. Riding high on a jazzy sample and an elastic bass riff, Clef refuses to play undercover snitch for his Burger King boss, Lauryn rebukes a lecherous old friend with gold teeth and wandering hands, and Pras realizes he’s not Biggie Smalls enough to cap the crooked cop who’s looking to stick him with murder charges.

“Cowboys”: “Everyone wants to be a cowboy,” says Clef in the intro, and sure enough, everyone comes with guns blazing on this posse cut. Three of the four verses pair a Fugee with a member of fellow Jersey crew Outsidaz, and predictably, there’s a lot of tough-guy and tough-gal posturing. If the Kenny Rogers “Gambler” reference seems too obvious, check out L-Boogie cleverly repping a certain Mel Brooks comedy: “It’s apparent, you’re no talent, cause your blazin' in your saddle.”

“No Woman, No Cry”: Although it’s an obvious Bob Marley cover, Clef’s “No Woman, No Cry” is Jamaica meets Jersey, complete with lyrics about stolen cars and street-corner drug deals. “Everyting is gonna be alright,” Clef sings, letting his accent shine through and offering some hopefulness after the “woman cry / woman cry/ son still dies” aggressiveness of the previous track.

“Manifest/Outro”: Prior to the outro and closing credits, Fugees wrap their sonic movie with three disparate scenes set to sparse piano, bass, guitar, and drums. There’s an evocation of Christ’s betrayal by Clef, a tale of heartbreak begetting suicidal thoughts by L, and tough-minded bravado from Pras. Throughout The Score, the individual Fugees follow their own paths, thematically intersecting whenever they feel like it, and in that sense, the finale is no surprise ending.