The three members of the New York-area Fugees (as in Refugees, reflecting the Haitian-rooted band’s pointed outsider stance) import poetic seriousness and political awareness to the snappy hip-hop of their strong, deep and diverse debut. Rappers Wyclef Jean (who also plays guitar and bass), his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and sometimes actress Lauryn Hill (whose clipped, rhythmic thrust resembles MC Lyte’s here) weave their involving rhymes — non-doctrinaire discussions of religion, heroes, urban static, black nationalism and other related topics — together over the mostly self-produced melodic tracks on the way-too-long Blunted on Reality. Tucking old-school party clichés and pop culture references into modern, substantial concerns, Fugees join the familiar fun and then ratchet it up, moving the very engaging music around from driving funk to dancehall bop (with help from toaster Mad Spider) to boisterous soul to brisk ska. The trio’s opinion of marijuana is hard to discern — the album title conveys a more existential sense of high-ness and the “Blunted Interlude” skit at least sounds like it’s poking fun at the enervated paranoia of obsessive smokers — but Fugees’ energetic, devoted consciousness and informed opinions make them sound as sober as Sunday school teachers.
Whatever further lessons the trio needed to learn sure got learned: the second album lived up to its name in the commercial sense, landing at the top of the pop charts on the strength of “Fu-Gee-La,” a lackluster pre-LP single that appears on The Score CD in three mixes, and a bizarrely straightforward update of “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” the Gimble/Fox ode to sensitive singing that was first sent to No. 1 in 1973 by Roberta Flack. Rolling along on cool, subtle beats that touch on dub and reggae but generally go their own atmospheric way with more consistency than on the debut, this complex album spreads a wide and confident net, calmly critiquing culture, economics, science and politics in daring, pointed raps that elevate the level of debate by bringing the volume and tension levels down. (Only the group’s bewildering anal fixation — “defecating on your microphone” is the most unpleasant of several citations — repeatedly spoils the mood.)
Covering “Killing Me Softly,” singing Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” with new lyrics and prominently sampling the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” as the basis of “Zealots” give the record instant familiarity, but Fugees’ goal isn’t easy pleasure. With Jean and Hill matching the fine quality of their production work on the mic, the Fugees aim barbs at the black community (“And even after all my logic and my theory/I add a ‘muthafucka’ so you ign’ant niggas hear me”), question other samplers’ musical originality and refute a magazine’s reported suggestion that “the girl shoulda went solo, the guy should stop rappin’.” At The Score‘s most unsettling point, a weird and ambiguously comical Chinese restaurant confrontation skit serves as coda to the police condemnation of “The Beast.”