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That's not the case on The Score, for which the Fugees took the production reins. "I feel it's my job to produce things that are going to the next level," Jean says--and to that end, he's built on the accomplishments of rap pioneers. The film-strip "bongs" that sound between several cuts immediately call to mind a similar effect on De La Soul's classic 3 Feet High and Rising; likewise, the Fugees' eclectic musical influences have much in common with De La's. "Zealots," for example, borrows the melody from the Flamingos oldie "I Only Have Eyes for You," while the Hill-sung recasting of "Killing Me Softly" should strike anyone who loathes the Roberta Flack original as an extremely pleasant surprise.
Just as vital is the disc's overall sheen. Jean, assisted by Michel, constructs a sound that uses live instrumentation and clever samples in a singular manner. The Score is rich, spacy and continuously captivating--one of the few hip-hop CDs that actually rewards headphone listening.
The words, meanwhile, are piled on thick and sometimes ring with a political subtext. But even "The Beast," an anti-police-brutality yarn, takes time out for quirky images (including a reference to "that tall kid Mutombo"). The Fugees don't hector, and neither do they shoot for the lowest common denominator.
"We aren't trapped by formula because we're dealing with three very different entities here," Jean notes. "You have Lauryn, who's very soulful, so she brings that part of our thing. And then you have me--I'm Caribbean mixed with hip-hop. And Pras has that background, too, but he comes at it in a really different way. It's the combination that makes us untouchable, you know?"
That may be true, but Jean isn't taking the Fugees' chemistry for granted. He's smart enough to know that simply making a strong recording isn't a guarantee of perpetual prosperity. That's why he plans to do every video and make every public appearance he can in order to lay a foundation for the future. And if the president of Ruffhouse wants to take him to lunch, well, where's the menu? "We're trying not to lose touch with reality," he says. "Even if we start selling millions of albums, we want to keep our core audience. Because not everyone who buys our album is going to be faithful."
The Fugees are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, April 2, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with the Roots, and Goodie Mob. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).