Vinyl Vlog 131

Vinyl Vlog 131

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the 20th Anniversary Vinyl Me Please deluxe edition 2LP + 7” of The Score by The Fugees.

Looking back on it, it’s nothing short of astounding how volitile the hip hop scene of the Mid-Nineties was. Before Eminem made dick and fart jokes as well as unveiled homophobia de rigeur, different factions of the Gangsta Rap community were battling both with each other as well as internally for seats at the head table of their genre.The violence that many of the superstars of the day chronicled and found fame with began to reflect back on them as members of the scene began to die violently, and others started to stand as villians in control of it all. It was a very dark time but, because darkness requires a relief in order to illustrate just how dark it is and because thugs need thinkers in order to keep any army moving forward instead of simply imploding, the scene needed acts like The Fugees. Borne not out of South Central Los Angeles or Central Park in New York, The Fugees appeared suddenly on the largest popular radar from the Jersey-side of New York with their sophomore album, The Score, in 1996. Unlike the other artists who were shining in the brightest rays of the spotlight at the time, The Fugees’ music was all about art and soul first; granted, there were shadows of violence and harsh realities coloring the edges of their music, but they were absolutely not their preoccupation. Rather, the primarily focus of The Score was to present the heart of a scene ravaged by violence, but illustrate that it had not been overcome and was not dark at its core; in fact, it could be contended that The Score and The Fugees sought to press the opposite of what was making headlines in hip hop at the time, but do so without blanching their muse to make it palatable to John and Jane Conservative. The Score sought to be real, but not succumb to base emotions; in effect, it would be art.

As ground-breaking and profound as The Score proves to be, it certainly doesn’t start that way – in fact, the album opens in precisely the same manner as every other formulaic hip hop album of the Nineties did: with an introductory vignete which is supposed to set the stage for the album. Not only that but, the vignette doesn’t seem representative of either the band or the album – much like a rant that some gang might have around an old living room coffee table, the vignette finds an unnamed individual talking smack and posturing before a few friends before some sirens fade up in the background and the beat starts and the whole thing is punctuated with the words, “If you ain’t ready now, you ain’t never gonna be ready.” It’s actually a perfect way to begin this album; it’s not violent or gangsta, but it’s a fantastic call to order. It’s now or never – and easy to feel.

After that, “How Many Mics” will find thirsty ears now, just as it did when The Score was first released. While emcee Wyclef Jean’s first introduction is more than a little uncertain (to this day, twenty years later, I still don’t know what the emcee was saying – after looking if up, I can tell you it’s “How many mics do we rip on the daily/ say me say many Moni, say me say many, many, many”), but is redeemed effortlessly by Lauren Hill’s rich and soulful voice.

To this day, the beat of “How Many Mics” combined with Hill’s vocal delivery instantly sets a sexy step, swagger and swing that is both infectious and perfectly unlike any other which might have been found in the Nineties, and few have come close since. The closest most comparable vibe might (might) be the soul which had once been found during the glory days of Sttax and/or Motown; in Hill’s performance on “How Mnay Mics,” listeners will actually be able to feel their hips loosen up and begin to twitch/sway with only the power of reflex action controlling them – it’s just that good. That movement feels fine, but the contrast set by what Hill is actually saying seals the deal; lines like “I get mad frustrated when I rhyme/ Thinking of all the kids who try to do this/ For all the wrong reasons/ Seasons change, mad things rearrange/ But it all stays the same like the love Doctor Strange/ I’m tame like the rapper/ Get red like a snapper when they do that/ Got your whole block saying ‘TRUE DAT’” are simultaneously sensuous and insensed, fierce and fervid – it’s all a gaffe-sized hook in and of itself, at the end of the day.

Through the remainder of The Score‘s A-side, The Fugees further expand the breadth of their voice with thoroughly hypnotizing results. “Ready Or Not” straddles the lines between dark pop and wry social commentary and wisely never wavers to either side in order to keep listeners engaged (it’s difficult to discern if Robin Hill’s choral rejoinder of “Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide/ I’m gonna find you and take it slowly/ Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide/ Gonna find you and make you want me.” should sound like a threat or a promise) and “Zealots” really unfurls the group’s anger flag clearly (hip hop doesn’t get more angry and collegiate than lines like “I haunt emcees like Mephistopheles, bringing swords of Damocles/ Secret service keep a close watch as if my name was Kennedy/ Abstract raps simple with a street format/ Gaze into the sky and measure planets by parallax”) before closing the side a little darker still with “The Beast” – which seeks to (and succeeds at) present a shockingly urbane but chilling statement of concern for inner city youth while also taking the government (both federal and municipal) to task for abhorrent law enforcement practices as far-flung as the mishandling of Bill Clinton’s skirt-chasing while in office and the Oklahoma City bombing. Now, critics could easily say that “The Beast” reaches in too many directions for one five-and-a-half-minute song, but cramming the whole story in isn’t the point; “The Beast” could just as easily be called “The Bait” in that it aspires to hook listeners’ interest and get them looking to newspapers for the whole story – not to editorialize or spoon-feed them.

After such a dark beginning (keep in mind, that’s dark reader – not incredibly violent per se) it might be difficult for a listener to guess where The Fugees might head for the next three sides of The Score, but the brilliance becomes manifest when the B-side suddenly gets short, sweet and sublimely poppy. Opening with “Fu-Gee-La,” The Fugees balance old-school beats and production values [read: it sounds airy and a little echo-y] as well as spiritual sentiments (all this talk of Zion) with a fantastically honed hook in the title lyric. The beauty of it is just how well those parts align; while it’s a busy track, when the chorus hits listeners the effect is perfectly sublime and, as it trails off, “Fu-Gee-La” proves to set up the closest to straight-up hip hop track on The Score (“Family Business”) as well as the album’s far-and-away biggest hit (“Killing Me Softly”) perfectly.

Now, of course, “Family Business” is a great time capsule for mid-Nineties hip hop in that the song arranges chronicles of dry-eyed violence with crackling samples but that it aligns so well with the big hit quality of “Killing Me Softly” makes both songs essential listening to this day.

Listening now, what makes “Killing Me Softly” feel so cool is the fact that the song holds an unlikely balance between scruffy, park-borne hip hop with prestine soul sounds. It might sound weird in print, but it most certainly does not in practice; here, after some nonsense ramp-up which includes sound effects from a video game, Hill sets an anthemic but melancholy tone for the song with a variant on the recurring lyrical refrain which is underscored by some build-up [read: it has a bunch or senseless nonsense bubbling up beneath it –ed], included to get some momentum. All those first frills prove to have been perfectly superfluous, however, when they cut out and leave Hill to reprise the lines and capture a truly charmed moment thereafter, before the beat kicks in and takes her melancholia to a truly heavenly place.

Even now, twenty years later, it’s difficult to accurately articulate how affecting Lauren Hill’s vocal performance is on “Killing Me Softly.” Of course, the chorus is the element that everyone knows, but the verses are the places where Lauren Hill really showcases her ability to ache and emote as the tape rolls. Lines like “I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style/ And so I came to see him and listen for a while/ And there he was this young boy, a stranger to my eyes” are both composed and delivered in a manner which does not resemble music at all really; rather, the lyrics feel like a reading of a particularly soul-crushing moment in someone’s diary. Through the verses, Hill delivers her lines in an almost shocked or stunted tone which carries equal amounts of heartache and disbelief in it, and the song is arranged in such a manner that those listening have to actively work to remember that there is more to the song than just Lauren Hill’s vocal. They actually have to put effort into noticing Wyclef Jean’s contributions or that oddly tuned, sitar-sounding sample which rotates through the song, periodically. Even with such effort made though, there’s no question that “Killing Me Softly” is Lauren Hill’s breakout song. Anything else about it revolves around her and takes its cues from where she goes, and it’s for that reason the song has to end a side of this two-LP set – “Killing Me Softly” simply could not be a regular album cut because everything stops when it plays.

After they finally escape “Killing Me Softly,” have replaced the first vinyl platter of this Vinyl Me Please reissue with the second and dropped the needle into The Score‘s C-side, listeners will find that while there are certainly more great moments to be found on the album, “Killing Me Softly was definitely a spectacular high point in the album’s play, and following it is no easy feat. The album’s title track handily recaptures the urgency that “How Many Mics” and “Ready Or Not” featured (and, here, Wyclef and Pras Michel finally produce vocal performances which are as captivating as Hill’s) as well as lining up a great sense of pensive social commentary for “The Mask” and “Cowboys” to expand upon, before the group begins seaming up the loose end of what they’ve produced with a cover of Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” which helped them break into the pop charts, and “Manifest/Outro” to finally close the going down.

?So is this massive set worth joining a new record club for,” you ask? Well, some critics could say that some of the cuts made in order to make a 2LP set of The Score work feel a little odd or misplaced (and the added seven-inch single included which houses the B-sides and extras is just overkill), but the same could be said of original, single-disc LP which was originally released in 1996; either way, some fans could find fault with the presentation of the album but, really, the 2LP version here is superior because it gives listeners a truly special document and doesn’t cramp the stylus grooves too. That, combined with the music pressed into this medium makes it worthwhile, no matter how one chooses to slice it. [BILL ADAMS]


The 20th Anniversary deluxe Edition 2LP + 7” of The Score will only be available through Vinyl Me Please until April 15, 2016. Sign up here.

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