The Score (Ruffhouse)

By Bob Bahr

While Fugees have an unmistakable Brooklyn rawness, they seem to reside in that same smooth hip-hop purgatory that doomed Arrested Development and that limited US3. It's a maddening conundrum. We complain about the dull-headedness of hardcore rap, but when someone comes along with an alternative message, they are dismissed as being too soft.

Fugees, a trio of NYC talent with a trio of mid-level hits under their belts, don't openly embrace the party culture side of hip-hop, nor do they explicitly deny the gangsta lean of rap. Songs flip-flop themes, now centering on romantic pursuits, now making a strong political statement about police corruption and the white Establishment. Perhaps most tellingly, a between-song interlude set in a Chinese restaurant ends with Fugees getting their comeuppance -- a karate chop in the face. A gangsta rapper would have pulled out his 9mm and sprayed the restaurant owner's brains out on the walls.

The lack of gore is a refreshing change, but the listener is left wondering just what Fugees are trying to say. Shut up and put up? There's plenty of lyrical substance, but it doesn't go together that well.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy Fugees is the easy way: just sit back and relax into the grooves. Their gentle brand of activism is easy to take when it is couched deeply in the slightly trippy groove of "Fu-Gee-La," "The Beast" or the title track. (By the way, if you have a particular liking for their hit "Fu-Gee-La," this record will give you a big smile. It contains the original version plus two complete remixes.) "How Many Mics" is likewise easy to take, it being from the ancient school of cutting the heads of other MCs.

The rootsy, live-music feel of their music, touched by a hint of Caribbean flavor, is easy on the ears, and Pras is a competent rapper. But what makes Fugees special is Lauryn Hill and her double threat of sweet singing and sassy rapping. Their remake of "Killing Me Softly" is wholly dependent on her singing, and "The Mask" would be a total zero of a song without Hill's blend of vulernability and strength. Compare it to their Hill-deprived cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" that appears later on the record, and you'll see an illustration of Hill's indispensibility.

The production is good enough to make other tunes such as "Ready Or Not," "Zealots" and "Family Business" pleasant time-killers. But there is a certain wishy-washiness about The Score that slows things down to a crawl. "The Score" and "Fu-Gee-La" earned their hit status with their slow-burn atmosphere and good rapping. But over the course of an entire album, the schtick gets weak.