Saturday, December 11, 2004

Critical Essay 1: -How many mics do you rip...- Artistic Self-Awareness in the Fugees' "The Score"

Long recognised as one of hip-hop’s classic works, The Fugees’ 1995 album The Score has yet to leave the decks of the genre’s most discriminating DJs, nor the drives of its most ardent fans. Everyone recognises it as a defining moment within the genre, and that it renders much that had gone before and most of what would follow facile in comparison is undisputed: musically and lyrically it is a work of such complexity and intellect, that little can compare. If everyone recognises the power of its words, no one has actually defined what it is about the content of The Score that is so undoubtedly mind-blowing.

Apart from its obvious status as a work of hip-hop, a generic context which it clearly masters, what certainly interests me, and is latent if not recognised in most of its tracks, is its wider artistic importance. The Score, as indicated in its very title, is a CD about status: ‘What’s the score?’ is a colloquial way of asking about the current situation, and is especially apt considering the frequently used analogy of hip-hop as a ‘game’. It is about its own status within its genre, about hip-hop’s status as a genre, and about the status of art as a whole.

Within hip-hop, The Score occupies an unrivalled place at the top of the game. Critics and fans alike rightly point to the sharp wit of the three MCs who compose the line-up in placing themselves lyrically above their rivals. The long-held hip-hop tradition of ‘battling’ and ‘dissing’ is echoed resonantly in the opening tracks of the album, which thus interposes itself immediately at the top of its generic context. The crew reflect this mastery of their genre by embellishing hackneyed hip-hop phrases to great effect, creating something new and advanced out of the detritus of repeated clichés around them. Commercial hip-hop can be seen to be formulaic in the way that contemporary pop, or even classical theatre often is, and in adding depth and giving back meaning to its overused refrains, the Fugees immediately dominate it with their originality. The opening tracks, ‘How many mics’, ‘Ready or Not’, and ‘Zealots’ are all expressly concerned with the status of the Fugees’ rappers – Wyclef, Pras and Lauryn. Their subject matter is popular hip-hop and other MCs: their derogation of both is mercilessly skilled. In 'Ready or Not', the crew rap over a brooding, menacing beat about their intention to dominate their genre through Machiavellian brainpower. The title/chorus is the warning, imitating the warning given in the children’s game hide ’n’ seek, and the Fugees exploit the common ‘game’ analogy to great effect.

“I play my enemies like a game of chess,
Where I rest, no stress if you don’t smoke cess.”
(“Ready or Not”)

Lauryn takes the devalued use of ‘playing’ to mean ‘outwit’, exceptionally popular in hip-hop, and adds a simile that indicates her own intellectual prowess. She means to demonstrate her superiority, and so takes the formula other MCs would use to demonstrate theirs, and in extending it, proves her own and destroys their attempts. Her disdain for clichéd rappers is made clear in the next line, where she negates cannabis consumption as an indicator of prowess. Having dealt swiftly and skilfully with other MCs, she moves on to ignore them, using the rest of the verse to show off her own undoubted lyrical dexterity and eclectic range of sources.

“Less, I must confess my destiny’s manifest,
In some gortex and sweats I make tracks like I’m homeless,
Rap orgies with Porgy and Bess,
Capture your bounty like Eliot Ness.”

Lauryn binds together her verse with a series of /ε/ sounds delivered in time to the beat of the bass line, offering a strong poetic sound and making these amongst the most celebrated lines in hip-hop. Her formal tying together of the verse with this keynote sound reflects her substantial fusion of a wide collection of cultural references, from the musical[1] and literary[2] to the historic and cinematic[3], into her own trademark cultural product. Indeed, she finishes the verse by knotting all of these threads in one simple but dense unit:

“So why you imitating Al Capone? I be Nina Simone
And defecating on your microphone.”

The mention of Al Capone refers back to the Eliot Ness-simile, and allows her to prove once again her own lyrical superiority. Lauryn claims as an MC to be Eliot Ness, and then characterises her rapping rivals as Al Capone: it was Ness who finally brought down Capone’s ring in prohibition era Chicago. In the context of Gangsta Rap, a sub-genre dominating hip-hop back in 1995, Lauryn is making oblique but clear reference to Gangsta Rap’s MCs, likening them to an original 1920’s gangster. Her irony is cutting, and is sharpened further by her accusation that they are but “imitating” him: Gangsta Rap was dominated by claims to genuine ‘OG’ status – Original Gangster – although many of its stars were in fact from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Their professions to be ‘real’ were in fact false. As gangbuster Ness, Lauryn is verbally demolishing their formulaic falsity, and then, as at the beginning of the verse, further insulting them by ignoring them and talking about herself. She becomes Nina Simone, a heroine of black culture. Simone’s militant but eloquent defence of black rights is evoked by Lauryn against what can be seen as the destructive, stereotypical and stereotyping effects of Gangsta Rap on the perception of black culture. Simone also sang one of Gershwin’s Porgy songs to great acclaim, and this links her in with the earlier references of the verse. By integrating herself into examples of literary, intellectual African-American culture, Lauryn leaves her competition standing. The icing on this intricate cake is Nina Simone’s repute as a vocal artist: Lauryn originally broke through with her own splendid singing voice, and indeed employs it to great effect on The Score in addition to her rapping. Then Lauryn again employs hip-hop cliché and then furthers it, a convenient metaphor for her furthering of her own genre: it the standard cry of many MCs to be ‘shitting on the mic’, and so Lauryn twists this, avoiding profanity in a final swipe at Gangsta Raps often overly profane style. She is demonstrating her clear range of talent and intellect in an amazingly concise form. When, in the chorus of the song, she harmoniously claims: “You can’t run away, from these styles I got”, the superiority of these styles has been made clear.

A similar close textual analysis of ‘Zealots’ reveals all three MCs on top form in recycling rap clichés to elevate themselves above the competition: the song must clearly rank with all the best hip-hop tracks based around the tradition of ‘representing’. Further incidental lines dealing with their competitors or their own brilliance punctuate the Fugees’ album, but to ignore the other levels of The Score, and to reduce it to a work solely concerned with battling its intra-generic competitors, would be to reduce it to the level of these competitors. Contextual listeners requiring un-self-aware, belligerent Gangsta Rap have the self-absorbed Tupac or Biggie Smalls, whilst the Fugees effortlessly dominate this genre, and branch out into others.

This explains the sheer breadth of cultural references in The Score. I’ve already examined one set in detail, but besides this acknowledgement of previous Black artists, and wider American society, the MCs flaunt an impressive range of reference. Biblical language infuses tracks like ‘Family Business’ and ‘Zealots’, whilst Wyclef employs the echoes of the Faust-myth and detailed astronomical analogies (‘Zealots’). Indeed, on ‘Zealots’, Pras develops the Faust-reference with his own evocation of the related “The Phantom of the Opera”, pointing to a wider artistic consciousness in creating the work. This awareness of the process of art is as rare in hip-hop as it is in literature, but it is common in The Score.

The ability of the crew to master their genre, but then to examine and question it, before moving on to investigate music and artistic creation as a whole, is striking. The introduction, ‘Red Intro’, highlights the statuses of the work: its status as an album, its status as a hip-hop album, indeed, its status as art.

“Colombia Ruffhouse Records presents,
A Refugee Camp production,
Fugees, The Score.

And now… for our feature presentation…”

It functions like the flyleaves of, or prefaces to, a novel; it reminds the reader of the fictional nature of what he is about to experience, even under the guise of realistic text. Most hip-hop albums rely on their covers, sleeves and inserts to do this, but here, the Fugees insist on the idea of the CD as art. Track 13 furthers the point, containing an ‘Outroduction’ as well (‘Manifest/Outro’):

“The Score was written by the Fugees.”

A voice then goes on to give movie-style credits for the production of the work, echoing the cinematic use of “feature presentation” in the introduction. My novelistic take on the album is confirmed:

“Narrated by my man Warren”.

Nestled in between two songs, this ‘Outro’ is easy to ignore or deny full consideration, but that it is a close to an album is clear. Indeed, what makes it extraordinary is that it is followed by more songs. However, these songs are remixes, and it is clear that the ‘Outro’ is dividing a discrete ‘album within an album’ from the rest of the CD. In this way, The Score is as much ‘an album about an album’ as many novels are described as ‘books about books’. The cover and insert, then the ‘intro’ and ‘outro’, function as frames for a self-conscious piece of art.

Indeed, this finds support within the album. Its commercially most popular track, ‘Killing me softly’, is actually a remix. As with literary intertextuality, the remix is an important way for hip-hop artists to come to terms with their status as artists. That the Fugees are consciously doing this, however, is stressed by a kind of preface to the track, taking their own remix and playing with the key words of its chorus. They change the words slightly or homonymically, suggesting the arbitrary nature of language in art. Furthermore, the changes they make move the song away from its function as a love-song to a song questioning their very act of artistic creation:

“Strumming dub-plates with our fingers,
Eliminate sounds with our song,
Killing a sound boy with this sound,
Killing a sound boy, with this sound
Taking sound boys’ lives, with this dub
Killing him softly, with this sound.”

This fragment is followed by the sound of a record being changed, a momentary artistic void, drawing attention to this questioning of art. It explicitly deals with the musical apparatus of the art of their genre, sound itself in the forms of vinyl records, the ‘dub’. This fragment demonstrates the extraordinary self-awareness of the Fugees, and their evident preoccupation with the wider artistic process.


(i) The Score, The Fugees (Audio CD, 13th February 1996, Colombia)
(ii) [4]

[1] George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935)
[2] DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, which provided the material for the abovementioned opera.
[3] The Untouchables, appearing in 1987, tells the story of the 20’s gangbuster, Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Kostner).
[4] provides lyrics, although these are suggested by fans and are not definitive. I have changed them where I think there is good case, although due to the democratic nature of the content of the site, they are usually plausible versions.


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