I know I’m a little late to this party. I was busy. I can assure you that my review is different than the others. Bear with me. And pardon me if I skip listing all of the album trivia you could easily find on Wikipedia.
1996 was a pretty big year for me. I was a wide-eyed, energetic 11-year-old in Denver, Colorado, about to start the traumatic life experience known as middle school. The NHL expansion had brought us the Colorado Avalanche – they won the Stanley Cup that year, so I got to pretend I really cared about hockey, a sport in which I had zero interest or desire to play. Thanks to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and USA Gymnastics, I’d developed my first celebrity crushes (shout out to Dominique Dawes and Dominique Moceanu). Perhaps more importantly for purposes of this story, my Army-retired father was intent on teaching me to mow the lawn, to build character or something or other. Even though I could barely see over the handlebar, I must say, I was very, very good at it. I was so good, in fact, that my neighbor started paying me to mow his lawn when he was out of town. I was all about it, since Pops wasn’t paying me jack! So, at $5 a session (about $7.50 in 2016 dollars), I was able to start saving up for what every kid wants – candy.
But really, I was saving up to buy music. Ever since my folks had started getting those CDs every month from Columbia House, I was obsessed with the medium. I had a CD boombox, but I didn’t have any albums of my own. As much as I loved Mariah Carey’s “Music Box” (don’t act like you couldn’t break out into “Hero” right now. You ain’t gotta lie to kick it.), I was ready to branch out into that music my big sister was such a big fan of. I’d heard ‘Illmatic’ playing from her stereo a couple of years before and that was enough to get me hooked. I finally got an opportunity to buy a CD when I convinced my mom to stop in at Tower Records (RIP) after we’d been at the mall for what felt like an eternity to me, but was probably only a half-hour, knowing her. With something like $20 to my name, I burst into the store like a bat out of hell. I must have touched every CD in that place. A distraught employee approached us, and the conversation went something like this:
Employee: “Is there something you’re looking for?”
Mom: “No cussing! There will be no cuss words in our house!” (Still true, by the way).
After 20 minutes of deliberation, I’d finally made my first CD purchase. Soon, I was sitting in the minivan headed back home, with a giant smile on my face and a censored version of The Fugees, The Score in hand.
I literally grew up with The Score, and I still play it pretty often. I still have the censored copy I bought in 1996 even though it’s scratched to all hell. Of course, I’ve since bought a new copy of the CD, vinyl, and digital album – all uncensored. Sorry, mom. It’s an interest experience going from an edited album that you hold dear to the ‘same’ album, with the real words. It’s as if Wyclef Jean taught me how to curse. I bought it back in the day before Genius.com existed, and the internet in general was still a budding curiosity, so I couldn’t just look up the lyrics easily. I was left replaying the tracks over and over again trying to understand every Wyclef reference, every one of Lauryn’s rhymes, every ounce of Pras’ style. While my musical tastes continue to evolve and stretch in so many directions, The Score is still a blueprint for how I expect hip-hop to sound in its ‘original form’. That album taught me about sound. It taught me the power of a soulful sample, rhythm, delivery, and BARS. It proved that the right loop and tight drums are all that you need, if the emcees can spit (with the exception of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, I think The Score probably has the best drum sounds of any 90s hip-hop album). It showed me that different individual styles could be so complementary in group form. The Scoremight be 20, and that’s considered ancient in some hip-hop circles now, but it’s still dope, and I’m going to do my best to tell you why. I still hear new things every time I put it on. Without further stalling, here is a track-by-track review of sorts, featuring some of my favorite bars, a little commentary, some rambling, and little things I didn’t notice or understand when I was 11.
The opening cut on the album notably features the voice of poet/spoken word artist Ras Baraka – son of the late, great Amiri Baraka and current mayor of Newark, from where the Fugees hailed. There is a striking juxtaposition between the simple 7-note piano theme that loops and the complex, harsh reality of Baraka’s words. Baraka was calling attention to issues that still haunt black life in the city: unemployment and desperation, ‘gangsterism’ and posturing, and police brutality. A particular passage of note:
Trying to be Cowboys, they can’t even shoot! Trying to be gangstas but when the Beast come on the muthafuckin’ block, everybody break out! They beat my man Bob G up the other day, cops, pigs vampin’ on him, everybody just standing around just watching that shit take place. ‘Cause they only gangstas when it comes to being gangstas to themselves.
Baraka also weaves many of the song titles and themes from the album into his word. In the classical music world, they call that an overture.
2How Many Mics
I’d like to start by pointing out that Lauryn Hill’s verse, the very first verse on the album – and one of the best verses on the entire album – does not open with a rhyme. It begins with a line that she hangs in the air:
I get mad frustrated when I rhyme.
As the vast majority of rappers (including Lauryn) tend work in rhyming couplets, or something similar, most of the time, opening the album with a cliffhanger line is pretty revolutionary. But her delivery is so ill that it doesn’t stick out of her flow. God-level MC. My favorite moment on the track is a subtle one. It’s in the beat starting around the 1:15 mark as Lauryn rhymes:
Contraire, mon frere
Don’t you even go there
Me without a mic is like a beat without a snare…
Did you hear that snare in the track after she rhymed about it? Me either.
It’s also worth talking about Pras’ opening line, which will always be true:
TOO MANY EMCEES, NOT ENOUGH MICS
Preach, Brother Pras! As much as folks have shit on Pras for not having the same bars-per-second rate as Lauryn or Wyclef, Pras blessed the microphone with the uncut truth every time he touched it. So, I salute you Pras. You do you.
3Ready Or Not
I had actually heard this one the radio and seen the very memorable music video for this track before I bought the album. (Side note: that official music video on YouTube is more censored than my album was!) I also new the chorus before I knew this song – my dad was a big fan of the Delfonics, so I’d heard their track “Ready Or Not, Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” a number of times already. The eerie sounding beat is built around a 10-second loop of Enya’s “Boadicea”. Correlating with the images of the music video, the loop constantly pans back and forth between the right and left ear like ocean waves, and I can’t help but think of sonar when I hear the echo and reverb on Lauryn’s voice as she sings the chorus.
Wyclef’s verse is a stellar demonstration of how to effectively ride a beat, how to accent your flow to fit with not only the loop, but also the drums. Here are some of those perfect hookups, in bold italics.
I kick a rhyme drinkin moonshine
I pour a sip on the concrete, for the deceased
But no, don’t weep, Wyclef’s in a state of sleep
Thinkin’ bout the robbery that I did last week
And again, check out Pras on the last verse! How can people shit on that?
On the 12th hour, fly by in my bomber
Crews run for cover, now they under pushin’ up flowers.
COME ON PRAS!
So while you fumin’, I’m consumin’ mango juice under Polaris
You just embarrassed, ’cause it’s your last tango in Paris
And even after all my logic and my theory
I add a ‘mothafucka’ so you ig’nant niggas hear me…
It’s interesting that I learned the words to this song before I really knew what they meant, considering the heaviness of the subject matter. Now, as an adult living in a country with a serious police brutality problem, it’s impossible for me to listen to this track without shouting like I’m sitting in church and just got some serious word.
Conflicts with nightsticks, illegal sales districts
Hand-picked lunatics keep poli-TRICK-cians rich
You can’t search me without probable cause or that proper ammunition they call ‘reasonable suspicion’
…Alcatraz and shot up like el-Hajj Malik Shabazz
High-class get bypassed while my ass gets harrassed
Probable cause got flaws like dirty draws
The almost cricket-like sounds at the beginning of this track are probably my favorite thing about it, because they trick you into relaxing. Don’t sleep… Compelling Loop + Snappy, Swinging Drums + Bars = Boom Bap. It seems like such a simple formula, but this track seems to take the formula to another level. If you were to listen to the instrumental version of this track, it might make you nod your head for a little while, then you might get bored. Maybe not. But the bars are what really make a beat like this one move.
We get two different versions of Clef in the first verse: a more high-pitched, slightly Patois-tinged Clef, and the Clef we’re used to hearing on most of the other tracks. I’m all about emcees that can change effectively tone in the middle of a verse (check Royce da 5’9’s verse on “Rap On Steroids” off Trust The Shooter. You’re Welcome.). Clef also hits with one of his two reference to Alex Haley’s Roots on the album:
And tell your friends stay the hell out of my lawn
Chicken George became Dead George stealin’ chickens from my farm
The other reference comes on the next track…
…Like Alex Haley, take notes of this biography
My family tree consists of street refugees.
One of the dopest things about this track is the sample flip. It’s a recording by John Williams (the classical guitarist, not the film composer) of a composition called Recuerdos de la Alhambra. The magic came when Clef and Forte took this tune, which is originally ‘in 3’ (there are three beats per bar, the majority of music we hear has four beats per bar), and stretched it so that it would fit a common rhythm in 4.
Also, Lauryn Hill might diss 2pac on this track. I leave you to retrace the steps of their beef.
8Killing Me Softly
I’m actually not going to talk about the track that everyone knows so well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing track. But, to be honest, I kinda prefer the original Roberta Flack version.
– A hush falls over the crowd –
The production on the album’s title track really reminds me of something DJ Premier would make – record scratches, lots of vocal samples blended into the track, including vocals from other tracks by the artists currently rocking the beat. These Fugees vocal samples come from all parts of the album, songs before this track, and songs that have not been heard, if its your first time listening through the album, and you’re doing so in a linear fashion. This beat either messes up the timeline, or works as a crystal ball of sorts, previewing lyrics and sounds yet to be heard.
Pras steals this track. That’s partially motivated by the sudden change in the beat, but even beyond that, his style of storytelling is perfect for this track’s overarching theme of people hiding their true selves.
As I rung the bell someone tapped me on my back
I turned around to look, it was a rookie in a mask
He said, “I got a itchin’ on my trigger
Don’t move nigga, I’m taking you for murder!”
See cops got two faces like two laces on my Reeboks
My knees knock as I step back for a clear shot
“Well did you shoot him?” Nah, kid, I didn’t have the balls
That’s when I realized I’m bumpin’ too much Biggie Smalls
In my humble opinion, this is hands down the best track on the entire album. The Fugees teamed up with The Outsidaz for one of the illest posse cuts in the history of hip-hop. With all of the verses focused on living life as outlaws, this is a Western I would actually want to watch. The emcee pairs work ridiculously well: Pacewon and Wyclef, Rah Digga and Lauryn Hill, Young Zee and Pras, then John Forte carrying his own verse.
We make moves in stagecoaches, Rah Digga lights the roaches
If anyone approaches, we like ‘noches, buenos’
Then I compose a poem for the many gunslingers
R&B singers, perpetrating guns with two fingers
Medina is the east side of town, lounge never til we yawnin’
Gun play is regular, front page is the bonus
Life’ll keep existing as I’m shittin’ on opponents (x2)
12No Woman, No Cry
Wyclef’s heartfelt Bob Marley cover changes some of the lyrics and some of the place names, but the original sentiment is still there. I always found this to be an interesting moment on the album, especially following directly after a song as aggressive as “Cowboys”. I usually skipped this song when I was listening to the album. Feelings? Get those out of here!
Listening to it now, however, it makes a lot of sense to me. It’s a bit of a transition out of the album, but it leads into what’s probably the darkest, most introspective track on the album…
…at least as far as Lauryn’s verse is concerned.
Gravity is built within the verses on this track by the increasingly intense sound of a guitar strumming a single, metallic, somewhat out-of-tune note the moves simultaneously with the emcees raising the intensity of their voices.
Christ took a sip of the Amaretto
Passed it down the table said “Today, I’ll be betrayed by one of you twelve disciples”
“Give me a clue, who could do this to you??
The kid on the block who make less money than you!”
When my peoples would protest
I told them mind their business, cause my shit was complex, more than just the sex
I was blessed, but couldn’t feel it like when I was caressed
I’d spend nights clutching my breasts overwhelmed by God’s test
I was God’s best contemplating death with a Gillette!
But no man is ever worth the paradise manifest
I’ll spare you the Outro and bonus tracks, I’ve gone on for long enough. This album, on the other hand, is absolutely timeless. I’m constantly floored by the simplicity of it all, in comparison to a lot of the hip-hop from the last 5 years that I listen to. The Score is loops, drums, and rhymes. No bells, no whistles. And that’s why it will always be one of my favorite albums. Hit me up in 2026, I’d love to tell you what else I’ve noticed.