The Fugees – “Cowboys”

The Fugees‘s 1996 breakthrough The Score is kind of like the Avatar of hip-hop: An album that was so huge, so acclaimed, so everywhere on release that we eventually ended up collectively blocking it out of our consciousness. Kind of a victim of its own success. But when New Jersey emcees Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel rebounded from a dud of a debut to this? Woo! They had the latter half of the ’90s on lock.

So the Fugees, short for Refugees, a derogatory term reflecting the Haitian roots of Wyclef and Pras, came together while in high school in the early ’90s. In 1994 they dropped their debut, Blunted on Reality, a critical and commercial failure for its gangster posturing and mostly boring listens. The group showed promise though, especially in the rhyming and singing skills of Lauryn and the production chops of Wyclef. It was enough that their label, Columbia Ruffhouse, greenlit a second album. The Fugees had to deliver with one, and bruh, they really did.

The Score had the group tightening up their skills dramatically and pursuing the sounds and lyrical matter they wanted. The production was strong and sample-heavy, buoyed by contributions from the group and from legendary producers like Diamond D and Salaam Remi. Live instrumentation came into the mix with guitar playing from Clef. Lauryn took more of a center role, putting her stellar singing and rhyming on display. The album had an ambitious and cinematic flair, providing battle raps, socially conscious scribes, and political commentary. The record was ready for the street, but also ready for the pop charts, and had a strong Caribbean flavor too. It was the perfect powder-keg.

Needless to say the album was huge, going multi-platinum. I remember several tracks getting steady play that year, such as “Ready or Not,” “No Woman, No Cry,” and the mega-hit, “Killing Me Softly.” Fun fact, that last one was so catchy and everywhere I remember being in 4th grade music class and my teacher was singing the original Roberta Flack version, only to have everyone yell “ONE TIME,” on the chorus!

The Score made Pras a phenom, Clef a bonafide star, and Lauryn….She was in the stratosphere. It was also brought a quick end to the group, as fame and internal strife killed their momentum together. Nearly a quarter-century (YIKES) later, the trio have had varying degrees of success and a fair bit of drama too (you already probably heard jokes about Lauryn…).

Anyhow, you probably know the big tracks on this record, so I wanted to post an album cut. “Cowboys,” featuring Pace 1, Young Zee and Ra Digga of the collective, Outsidaz. It’s a dope posse cut, looming large, with solid mic passing amongst the group. Especially love how Lauryn and Ra, the two women here, put in some of the best moments on the joint. And, the “Plug two like Trugoy” line makes me smile (and lives on). What a moment!

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