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Signs from god are where you find them: Lightning flickered throughout the Fugees' short outdoor set at South by Southwest in Austin last week, and after nearly every bright flash, guitarist/rapper (and son of a preacherman) Wyclef Jean gazed questioningly at the sky. He was probably just worried about getting zapped, but after his foray into Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," you had to wonder. Dedicating it to "all the refugees worldwide," Haitian-born Jean updates the song to a project yard in Jersey where "stolen cars passed through the night," giving a chilling new cast to lyrics about "good friends we've lost along the way." The Fugees, with a simple cover, limn the black diaspora as a devastating time line of struggle, pain, and the embers of hope. Sung with the informed sorrow of someone twice his age, Jean's tentative "everything's gonna be all right" is the long-awaited response to the gangsta nihilism still chokeholding hip-hop discourse. It sounded like a benediction.
Greg Tate wonders if "hip-hop is dead" in the March issue of Vibe, because it no longer offers a furthering of the musical form or the promise of salvation. "It took the omission of hip-hop spokespersons from the Million Man March," he writes, "for me to realize how spiritually and politically irrelevant hip-hop had become." Swan song or redemption song, the Fugees' potent new album, The Score, kicks some of that ole Deuteronomy shit, full of references to hellfire and slouching beasts, not to mention Nostradamus, Satan, and Jah Rastafari. "I used to go to church/ El Boogie drive the hearse/ I woke up this morning, I was feeling kinda high/ It was me, Jesus Christ, and Halie Selassie I," Jean raps on "Manifest/Outro." Complementing such pantheism, the Fugees' music fuses 20th-century black music into an organic whole. (Even their samples are no mere flava; they replay them live.) More than just eclecticism, it bespeaks a cosmology of inclusion: a return to one nation under a groove.
The ruffneck title song is straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, a nightmarish landscape of disembodied voices and screams that drop in and out and interweave with a haunting riff. Boots clomp in rhythm across the pavement -- "Left, right, left, right": It's Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel, the soldiers of righteousness, here to "settle the score." While the Wu Tang Clan mythologizes urban life as a samurailike battle for individual honor, the Fugees set it up as a Dante-like trip through the concentric streets of hell, with uplift-for-all the goal in sight, and a cross section of 2,000 years of religious codes their weapons.
The difference is profound: Are your enemies any niggas that step to you (the Wu Tang) or the authority figures who keep you down (the Fugees)? The Fugees are ambassadors of good will compared to most rappers, Jean declaring, "Before black I'm first hu-man," and running through Crown Heights "screaming out, 'Mazel tov!' " Still, there's a somewhat disturbing interlude in which two homeys clash with an Asian restaurant proprietor. The latter breaks out the "flying fists of judo" and gives them their comeuppance, but he's a Chinese cartoon with a Charlie Chan voice.
It's no excuse, but as Hill raps on "Zealots" (which rides a replayed "I Only Have Eyes for You" sample), "Even after all my logic and my theory/ I add a muthafucka so you ignorant niggas hear me." Sounding street is still important for the Fugees, who were raised in Newark and Brooklyn (Jean and Michel are cousins), and they steep their music in the boombastic beats, vaguely Middle Eastern sounds, and the eerie production of their NYC peers. A far cry from the energetic if haphazard sound of their debut, Blunted on Reality, the cohesive overall feel is alternative-rap-label-hating hardcore, if mesmerizingly unique. As of yet, it's still all a post-gangsta can do; call it an inheritance tax.
The Fugees have been called the "spiritual heirs to the great Rasta revolutionaries of the '60s and '70s." Their political purview is one of resistance rather than a proactive call to arms, of learning how to deal with today's reality -- police harassment, racism, misogyny, black-on-black violence -- with dignity rather than of constructing a game plan for tomorrow. If you're looking for Public Enemy-style polemics, you'll be sorely disappointed, and the Fugees still pack steel, or at least talk about it. But by reinstituting the rapper as what Natasha Stovall called "divine agent" in the Voice, the Fugees are laying the groundwork for the next generation of raptivism, one that's been bubbling in the margins semiforsaken over the past few years. Also encouraging are the literary smarts the Fugees unself-consciously let loose: "The Mask" references Paul Lawrence Dunbar's classic poem "We Wear the Mask" (as in, "that grins and lies"), and analyzes what sociologists call the "cool pose" as a street coping mechanism that's as self-destructive as it is necessary.
Unwilling to even consider playing dumb or coy, Columbia undergrad Hill's mind-boggling flows rhyme "puerile" with "futile," and "Porgy and Bess" with "Elliot Ness." She's "Nina Simone defecating on your microphone" and one of the best MCs of the day -- male or female. Her cover of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" offers the most symbolically rich moment on The Score: The words "killing me softly with his song" take on new meaning when sung by a female in a hip-hop context. Not only does her throaty alto burn the schlock out, it drenches rap's back catalog of beeyatch-and-ho remarks in shame. Besides, in the opening skit, she metaphorically kills a sound bwoy with her song. That's the only outward gesture of feminism; Hill is a supermama secure in her signifyin' and doesn't belabor the point. Just peep her Pam Grier turn in the "Fu-gee-la" video.
And at the Austin show, she was all sass, telling the soundman to "fix the fucking" mix and cajoling her bandmates to keep on playing even after organizers told them to pull the plug. She, Clef, and Pras traded verses with the uncanny communication you'd expect from a holy trinity, raising all the fervor of a revival meeting. Earlier, Jean had led his DJ and the band through a medley of old-school songs, from "White Lines" to "Rock Box" and, tellingly, the gospel number "Lift Every Voice and Sing." As Bob Marley once sang, "In this great future, you can't forget your past."
The Fugees play Fri, March 29, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.
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