FUGEES / “Some Seek Stardom”
Yes, it’s been twelve years since the debut of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras (Does Anyone Outside His Immediate Family Know His Real Name*), AKA the mighty, mighty (Re)Fugees. Depending on your perspective, twelve years might sound like a long time or it might sound like an eye blink, but in a genre where two albums (only one of which is actually good) is enough to make you and your cohort near-legends, twelve years is indeed a long, long time. I remember Kalamu asking me once what I thought of Lauryn as a singer. “She’s OK,” I said. “Good voice.” And as an MC? “One of the best. Top five, easy,” I told him. One of the best out there right now? Really? “No,” I said. “Not right now. All-time.” That’s right, all-time. Here’s why: Exhibit One – “I got mine, now won’t you get yours.” The tune is “Some Seek Stardom.” Things begin slowly: in the first verse, it sounds as if Lauryn is still feeling things out, trying to decide what kind of flow she wants to use: the then-prevalent ‘grimy,’ choppy, Onyx-like style (remember them?) or some next level shit of her own. Thankfully, somewhere between the end of her first verse and the beginning of her second one, Lauryn decides to just do Lauryn, in the process turning verse two into a spectacular display of what KRS-One labeled breath control—the ability some MCs have to keep on rhyming (and rhyming and rhyming) long after mere mortals would’ve passed out from oxygen deprivation. Blurring the line between singing and MCing, Lauryn extends each line until she achieves the illusion of rhythmic seamlessness—everything runs into one. No breaks. No pauses. Just a very, very lyrical voice floating above the groove with a serene fierceness that sent me reaching back to ’87 and ’88 for appropriate comparisons. In verse three, Lauryn pulls another trick out of her rhyme bag: a lilting, but not-quite-melodic, lift from the pop/jazz standard “Moody’s Mood For Love.” But Lauryn’s not talking about romantic love. She’s talking about community love…or, our lack thereof:
There we go, there we go, there we go “I got mine, now won’t you get yours” We never open doors so we neglect And don’t protect the ones that’s left People never really seem to care And then they cry out, “My people, “Why aren’t we treated equal?” As we flee, we flee our own communities We leave our family in poverty And then we blame it on another So family, please recover…“Stardom” wasn’t a feature track of Blunted On Reality. In fact, its only appearance on a single was as the b-side of the much-loved “Nappy Heads” remix. Somebody screwed that one up: "Stardom" is the best song of the album. And, not coincidentally, it features Lauryn tearing shit up all by her lonesome. Exhibit Two – “Fake bullets can’t scar me.” The first time I heard Lauryn’s verse from “Fu Gee La,” it was one of those real ‘rewind’ moments, as in, “What did she just say? Rewind!” She starts it off in an old school saloon freestyling with spoons like back in high school, moves on to chastising gold-diggers and ends up dining on both fake rappers and raw fish. By the time she made it to the part about getting all sentimental over my man Rich Morris, I was done. (“Seen Cooley High / Cried, when Cochise died.”) And then, not to be outdone by herself, Lauryn returned to wreck the remix, utilizing an almost identical cadence but with all-new lyrics. Damn. Exhibit Three: “666 cuts W.I.C. like Newt Gingrich sucks dick.” My favorite line from my favorite Lauryn Hill performance—her two verses from “The Beast.” Lyrically, this pair of rips are the hardest Lauryn ever came (and with every passing year, it’s looking more and more like it may be the hardest she ever will). I love the first verse for its sheer audacity—at the time Lauryn charged Gingrich with metaphorical fellatio, Gingrich was still the golden boy of the Republican Party, an untouchable. (Hey, we were all thinking it. Lauryn just had the prescience, and the balls, to put it out there.) That said, it’s the second verse that really got me. In a blistering first-person, Lauryn turns patriarchy on its ear—a young, black woman using her platform to provide a voice for men who have none.
The subconscious psychology that you use against me If I lose control, will send me to the penitentiary Such as Alcatraz / Or shot up like Al Hajj Malik Shabazz High class gets bypassed while my ass gets harassed And the fuzz treats bro’s like their manhood never was And if you’re too powerful, you get bugged like Peter Tosh and Marley was And my word does nothing against the Feds So my eyes stay red as I chase crazy baldheads, word up!Exhibit Four: “Sweet like licorice, dangerous like syphilis.” This last one isn’t a verse or a line, it’s an observation. Most MCs are lacking in some area. They may have the voice, but their flow is one-dimensional. Or their flow may be superior but their lyrics just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Or let’s say they’re able to put all the elements together, but their quality level is sporadic. Lauryn, like all the truly great ones, had (has?) it all: lyrics, flow, style, substance, consistency. No weaknesses. That’s why it was so hard for hip-hop fans like me to wholeheartedly enjoy The MisEducation… (as good as it is). It’s as if Michael Jordan had made that White Sox team after all, and he was in the starting lineup, and maybe he even had an all-star year or two—that still wouldn’t stop us from wishing he was back on the court negating gravity and dropping 50 on the Knicks. Lauryn, you’re good with the melodies, but you belong to the beats. Come back, please. The game needs you. —Mtume ya Salaam * Just kidding. It’s Prakazrel Prazkarel Michel. (Thanks, Alice!) Try to remember that. Tracks: Fugees – “Some Seek Stardom” from Blunted On Reality (Ruff House/Sony, 1994) Fugees – “Fu Gee La” (Refugees Remix) / “Fu Gee La” (Global Remix) / “Fu Gee La” (J. Period’s Story To Tell Remix) from J. Period Presents The Best Of Lauryn Hill (Promo only, 2004) Fugees – “The Beast” from The Score (Ruff House/Sony, 1995) Recognize and respect When I asked Mtume about Lauryn, I was not testing him. I really wanted to know what he thought about this young woman who reminded me a little of Puma Jones from Black Uhuru, except that from what I peeped, Lauryn was the most talented of the Fugees trio. Period. I remember Mtume explaining that Wyclef really had talent as a musician and was the brains behind the group. (Has anybody ever taken Pras seriously?) And, of course, on the street and at the cash register, you can add all of Wyclef’s and Pras’ solo sales together and you don’t get a half of Miseducation. On the other hand, I know it is a major mistake to equate popularity with quality or relevance, still those who may have thought of Lauryn simply as eye candy have been forced to admit even when we closed our eyes, Lauryn was standing out from the pack. And, me of a different generation, was wondering what it was; what was Lauryn bringing that made us stay awake when she was rapping. All the under-her-skirt rumors and gossip about Lauryn and Wyclef could not obsure the fact that Lauryn's public persona was that of a conscious sister who kept her clothes on. Moreover, when you paid attention with your third-eye, you saw that this cute shortie was actually an Amazon. So that’s one part of the picture: she had the presence of a model but instead of emphasizing the flesh attraction, Lauryn aimed at one’s dome, reminding all of us to look out for peeps at home and that home is where the struggle was/is. The soundtrack for this is here: listen to “Superstar.” Second, while her singing might be a hook to reel you in, the real deal was her MC skills in three-parts. One part flow, one part rhyming dexterity, and heavy third part consciousness in her content. That’s three-sixty MCing. But there is something beyond the ones and twos that really appeals to me about Lauryn. What more could there be? Well check this—she is consciously in the tradition. She has studied what has come before and incorporates past masters into her youthful music, thus becoming not just a voice onto herself, her time, her era but also a voice of the ages because up in her is a significant section of the history of our music making and thus, what Lauryn drops is heavier than Lauryn’s personal experiences. Her music shoulders the mantle of ancestral song and thus represents a people and not just a person. And she knows it. But now that I have pointed you in the direction of Lauryn’s musical depth (I have more to say about all of the above in this week’s "Cover" section) let’s flip the script and look up to her MC heights. Although her singing is full up with niceness, I’d rather hear her rap because that’s when she really brings the noise. Her skills at rhyming and flowing far outweigh her skills as a vocalist, which is not to say that she can’t sing but which is rather to say that she be spitting so hard, her nickname could be hurricane, ‘cause Lauryn sure can blow ‘em on down. Up in Lauryn’s raps, if you look up the references you find not only Black history and consciousness, but also a global awareness and a deep, deep streak of female self-awareness; an awareness that rather than focus on her personal sexuality, Lauryn investigates sexism and the effects thereof on females. You’ve heard her rhymes. You know what I mean. To quote P-Funk: Bad! The girl is bad! Check “Manifest”—“he tried to burn me like a perm.” Word. Whereas I enjoyed Miseducation it was J. Period’s The Best of Lauryn Hill, Volumes 1 and 2 that really convinced me and put a lot of Lauryn into a proper perspective. If you are a Fugees fan, the J. Period production will round out your collection; if you are a Lauryn fan, the J. Period volumes are a must have. Simple as that. Must have. No ifs, ands or buts… you gotta get it. http://www.jperiod.com Mtume, you know you right. Except to say, while her past is undeniable, where she’s headed is yet to be seen. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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