The year is 1996. East Coast hip-hop is in excellent health with Raekwon, Mobb Deep and GZA leading the way. Tupac Shakur's still alive. Giuliani's Mayor of New York and Clinton's President. It's the year of mad cow disease, Dolly the sheep, NASA's Endeavour and Apollo 13. Fugees, a hip-hop trio from New Jersey, are in a liminal stage between the release of their totally underrated debut 'Blunted On Reality' and an album that would transform them into one of the most celebrated hip-hop groups of the decade: 'The Score', released sixteen years ago this week.
At the time, Fugees (formerly Tranzlator Crew) were in their 20s - Lauryn Hill was just 21. They've described the recording process in interviews as relaxed and organic; you can't hear the tension between Wyclef Jean and Hill that would lead to the band's break up a year later. That's not to say it's all cupcakes and unicorns: 'The Score' contains grisly portraits of life in the ghetto. It's a theatre of pandemonium, pain and pride shot with colour, dialogue, sound effects and some of the finest lyrics commited to tape. Hill herself saw it 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
As is often the case with incandescent works, there's something magical about the way the elements align within 'The Score'. Here are five reasons it's one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.
Their acrobatic rhymes were insanely clever
From the off, Lauryn Hill sets out her stall with brio. "I get mad frustrated when I rhyme/Thinking of all the kids who try to do this/For all the wrong reasons" she raps in 'How Many Mics'. Playing with speeds - double-timing "thinking of all the kids", for example - is just one ingredient of her ingenuity. The first verse in 'The Beast' sees 18 rhymes (some half) in an ear-blowing tour de force:
Conflicts with night sticks, Illegal sales districts,
Hand-picked lunatics, keep poli-TRICK-cians rich
Heretics push narcotics amidst its risks and frisks,
Cool cliques throw bricks but seldom hit targets
Private-DIC sell hits, like porno-flicks do chicks.
The 666 cut W.I.C. like Newt Gingrich sucks dick
If you see 'The Score' as a collection of Battle raps - the order (usually) of Lauryn, Clef and then Pras holding up the rear competing for the prize - you'd place Hill at the top. And that's not just because Wyclef Jean's disqualified for recording a duet with Brian Harvey in 2007. Hill's a lyrical genius: imaginative, witty, moving and visceral. Here she is rhyming the brightest star in Ursa Minor with a Bertolucci film in 'Zealots': "So while you fuming, I'm consuming mango juice under Polaris/ You just embarrassed cause it's your last tango in Paris". "So while you're imitating Al Capone/I'll be Nina Simone/And defacating on your microphone" is another classic rhyme that sees Hill take a dig at gangsta rap culture. The style of packing multiple rhymes into one sentence is unmistakably her. Witness: "See hoochies pop coochies/ for Gucci's and Lucci/Find me in my Mitsubishi, eatin' sushi, bumpin' Fugees."
Wyclef Jean's skills lie in story-telling and immediacy. "Gun blast, think fast, I think I'm hit" he says in 'Ready Or Not'. He's sometimes funny - "I'm never gonna survive unless I get crazy like Seal" ('Too Many Mics') - and excellent at dialogue. His tale about working in Burger King - asked by his manager to snitch on his colleagues in return for a promotion - is one of the album's finest moments. And then there's Pras, the grittier rapper who's always last. "It's unpredictable, when my tongue performs Jujitsu/Cut you with my lyrics, stab you with my pencil," he spits. Together they create a cacophony of pyrotechnic lyrics.
Their approach to gender roles was revolutionary
The most potent difference about 'The Score'? Gender. There are very few mixed sex hip-hop groups, and there are even fewer groups in which the female is centre stage. Exceptions - Digable Planets, Arrested Development and Juice Crew - didn't break through the mainstream in the same way. The Black Eyed Peas are excluded for their disgraceful recent output. It's refreshing to hear an album completely without sexism or misogyny. As a female hip-hop fan I often cringe at mentions of porno lyrics casting females as "pussies", bitches, and nothing more. There's no danger of that here. Hill's narrative as a woman and her emotions are given space to breathe, most significantly in 'Manifest', a song about a guy who "stole the heart beating from my chest", and 'The Mask', in which she takes on a guy trying it on in a nightclub. And, simply speaking, I like male voices, I like female voices - I want to hear them both at the same time.
The album also marked a departure from the commercial success of gangsta rap; it was alternative hip-hop, if you like, that challenged the perceived ideology of the genre. Pras makes it implicit in 'The Mask': "Well did you shoot him? Naw kid I didn't have the balls, That's when I realized I'm bumpin' too much Biggie Smalls".
Their references were colourful and weird
Obscure references punctuate 'The Score', setting it firmly in the 90s as a piece of historical art. From politicians (Clef compares Bill Clinton to Batman, for example) to Biblical references, scientific mentions to strange animals, and the miscellaneous mentions of Dick Van Dyke, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and Zsa Zsa Gabor, it's a vibrant mix.
They sampled Enya! And other awesome artists
You knew 'Ready Or Not' samples Celtic ocean-nymph Enya's 'Boadicea'? Genius move! Another fine turn is the A Tribe Called Quest sample in 'Killing Me Softly'. The Bonita Applebum beat freshens up the Roberta Flack original. Check out this cool infographic of samples below collated by Ethan Hein.
They rapped like they cared about the world
Fugees skewer the authorities through socially conscious lyrics on 'The Score'. Main targets are the feds and politicians, and their hypocrisy. Republican Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House Of Representatives at the time, doesn't get off lightly. Neither do Connie Chung's controversial comments about the Oklahoma City bombings, Alcatraz, police harassment or gang violence.
'The Score' is one of the finest albums ever made. There's a poignancy to it as well; it was Fugees final record after a nasty break up. Afterwards, Hill made the extraordinary 'Miseducation of Lauryn Hill', Pras did 'Ghetto Superstar' and Jean's recorded with The Rock and went for the Haiti president job. A 2005 tour received mixed reviews. The end of the Fugees embalms 'The Score' in 1996, protecting its legacy and integrity. It is, without doubt, one of the greatest albums ever made.