#477 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time.
Rewind to 1996. This was a big year in hip-hop. 2Pac and Notorious BIG were engulfed in a massive feud that cast a shadow over the whole genre, and polarized it - suddenly, you were either West, or East. There was no middle ground, and while people might have respected the skills of both coast's most talented and famous rappers, everybody had a favourite. It filtered down through the other rappers at the time, too. You liked Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Warren G, or you liked Puff Daddy, Lil' Kim, and Mobb Deep. There wasn't a middle ground.
It was a far cry from hip-hop's origins. Sugarhill Gang gave us Rapper's Delight, the party classic. Grandmaster Flash gave us a social conscience in The Message and White Line (Don't Do It), and that was about as heavy as hip-hop got. Later, NWA, Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang Clan dropped bombs on the scene, and introduced heavier music and heavier themes, and were accused of glorifying violence, but they didn't go around shooting each other (well, rarely, anyway).
Will Smith arguably put it best. As much of a joke as many people see him as, Will Smith was part of hip-hop chill-out-and-party tradition when dueting with DJ Jazzy Jeff under the Fresh Prince alias. Summertime is as good an example as any of this side of hip-hop. However, there was a large period of time when Will Smith withdrew himself from the rap industry. There were early hits like 'Parent's Just Don't Understand' and 'Boom, Shake The Room', then he gave up. Why" Because the scene became too dominated by violence and hatred. In 1996; indeed, ever since TuPac got out of jail and declared war on Biggy; albums like De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising and Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory seemed light years away. What brought him back" This album.
You can discard Will Smith's opinion based on your opinions of him, but the fact remains that he's one of only a handful of rap artists to have hit in three consecutive decades, not including remixes (LL Cool J and Dr. Dre are the only other artists I can think of who have managed this), and he's still embracing this side of the genre on the hit's he still having. Not to mention, he's not the only person who was welcome of the change. Many people - including all those indie kinds brought into hip-hop by De La Soul - thought the genre was degenerating, and might well be in danger of disappearing altogether under the weight of its own ego.
Then, there was The Score.
The album was first released in February of 1996. However, it took a while to sow it's seeds. Killing Me Softly - the album's massive hit - wasn't released until June. In November of that year, following 2Pac's death and the horrid realisation that this feud had gone WAY too far, The Fugees released No Woman No Cry - a cover of a song by music's second most recognisable symbol of peace, Bob Marley. (John Lennon being the first.)
Timing was undoubtedly on The Fugee's side, as you'll realise when you listen to the album. The impact it had dwarves the quality of the album. That's not to say it's a bad album, it's just that if we were to look exclusively at the quality of the music and the consistency of the album, this album is not the classic many people view it as. The fact that Rolling Stone puts Lauryn Hill's solo debut a full 165 places higher on their Top 500 Albums Of All Time list should tell you that.
As I mentioned in my review of Wyclef Jean's The Ecleftic yesterday, the singles from this album are all stone-cold classics. Of that, there is no doubt. No Woman, No Cry, and Killing Me Softly are both accomplished covers of amazing songs, and I feel both stand up to the originals, by virtue of the guitars on the former and Lauryn Hill's fanastic singing voice on the latter. Fu-Gee-La is perhaps the best distillation of the Fugees sound, and Ready Or Not is simply one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time. This song features an Enya sample recently re-used, and almost ruined, by Mario Whinings.
The rest of the album just isn't at that level. A couple of songs - The Score and The Mask, most notably - still operate on a higher level than most hip-hop, without quite reaching Ready or Not's level. The remaining tracks, while sometimes enjoyable and sometimes impressive, and often possessing a social conscience missing from the hits, are just inferior. It's very harsh to call them filler, and they're certainly listenable, but you can't help but want to reach out for the skip button. They're not bad, they're just somewhat shamed by the company they are in.
That's the major flaw of the album. The other should be glaringly obvious looking at the tracklisting - do we really need FOUR versions of Fu-Gee-La" Each is individually good, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing, you know. Mista Mista is buried in all this, too, and that's a shame, because it's a welcome departure; it's basically a Wyclef solo track, featuring an antiquted, nostalgic, almost gothic guitar line and a nice melody. The lyrics to this song are a little on the simple side, unfortunately. Another flaw is that it would have been nice to see the social conscience of the group brought a little more to the front. I'm told this is the case on Blunted On Reality, and they toned it down for this album. Then again, getting rid of politics helps makes the album more laid-back, and that's why it succeeded in the first place.
The Score is a prime example of an album that needs to be placed in context for the listener to understand why it's classic. I can name at least 2 dozen hip-hop or hip-hop based albums that beat this hands-down, including at least 2 solo projects by Fugees members; yet, I can't name many as important. So yes, this album is a classic, but as I see it, it's for the wrong reasons. You'd probably be better off with the Greatest Hits, which is almost entirely drawn from this album anyway.
Recommended Download -
If you've heard either The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, or any of Wyclef's solo records, you should know there was a spirit of eclecticism to The Fugees. It's present here, but not as pronounced as it would be later. This makes it hard to pin down one track to represent the album; Fu-Gee-La
and Ready Or Not
will do for pinning it down to two, though.