Twelve copies. The Fugees’ debut album, Blunted On Reality, moved a dozen measly units in its first weeks in 1994, based on the legend anyway. It was the type of belly flop that could bury a career. Which is why the runaway success of the group’s sophomore LP The Score just two years later was so improbable. Nevermind improbable. Blair Witch improbable. “Gangnam Style” improbable.
The Score spent four weeks at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, eclipsing releases by Alanis, Hootie, and Soundgarden. In under two years it went platinum six times, and won a Grammy for Best Rap Album along the way. “Killing Me Softly” and “Ready Or Not” didn’t make a dent in the Hot 100 at the time, but anyone who lived through that era knows they were as ubiquitous and loved as any of the hits that did. Coming at the tail end of the gangsta years, but before shiny suits and the South’s gold-plated armies took over, The Score filled the void by balancing consciousness and street cred, hip-hop realness and radio readiness. The formula was so successful, its appeal so obvious, that a group like City High could land a hit with a facsimile of it and The Black Eyed Peas would eventually achieve nearly equivalent success by bastardizing it.
Just as improbable was the transformation of Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel from the hollering emcees of Blunted to the genre-blending craftsmen of The Score. They’d carry this critical and commercial momentum into hugely successful solo endeavors, and subsequently dominate the final half of the ‘90s. As pop stars, they were seemingly conjured out of the ether.
And after a handful of years of cultural hegemony, they dissipated back into that mist. A third album never came, nor did a formal breakup. There was no spectacular conflagration or catastrophic implosion. Instead, it was erosion, the elements pounding away over time to reveal little cracks until The Fugees buckled under their own weight, leaving the landscape forever altered.
This is how the colossus turned to rubble — and how it might be rebuilt again.
Did Love Take Out The Fugees?
Only Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean know exactly when the affair began. It’s impossible to “blame” someone or reverse butterfly effect the story to suss out a defining moment of the band’s disintegration, but the affair between its two strongest personalities certainly catalyzed the process. Before The Score was even done, when the trio was still holed up in the Booga Basement working on it, the married Haitian multi-instrumentalist and the prodigious 20-year-old multi-hyphenate had already racked up enough romantic drama to compel Hill to quit the band.
“The group had disbanded. [Hill] had left the group at this point and we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Pras recounted in a 2014 Billboard interview. “She calls me and says, ‘Listen, I’m going to come down to the studio and I’m going to lay down a reference for you guys, a hook. I give you permission to use my hook, my voice, but I don’t want to be a part of this group anymore…Make sure certain people are not around when I’m there.’ I said, ‘No problem.’ She’s laying the reference for ‘Ready Or Not’ and then she goes into the bridge and she’s crying. I see her crying. She stops and says, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and leaves.”
Her departure was temporary, but by the time The Score hit shelves in February of ‘96, rumors of a relationship between Hill and Jean had emerged. Years later, the public would learn that during the promo and tour cycle for the album in ‘97, Hill had begun seeing Bob Marley’s son Rohan Marley. She became pregnant that year, and the initial confusion over the paternity of the child (Marley was the father) was the tipping point for Jean.
According to Touré’s 2003 Rolling Stone exposé, when Hill went into labor, “Jean told a source he was flying to her side to see his new child.” Wyclef would seemingly corroborate this account in his memoir, Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story, claiming Hill lied to him about being the father. “In that moment something died between us,” Jean wrote. “I was married and Lauryn and I were having an affair, but she led me to believe that the baby was mine, and I couldn’t forgive that.”
Hill has refrained from detailing their behind-the-scenes soap opera, only alluding to it in song, alleging mistreatment and “abuse” during her time with Pras and Wyclef, or speaking cryptically about it in public. But her devastating verse in The Score closer “Manifest/Outro” was presumably one of the few contemporaneous accounts of the affair, and it indicates just how volatile things already were before the pregnancy: “You see I loved hard once, but the love wasn’t returned, I found out the man I’d die for, he wasn’t even concerned…Diamonds deserve diamonds, but he convinced me I was worth less…I was God’s best contemplating death with a Gillette, but no man is ever worth the paradise manifest.”
We’ll probably never know who was doing the manipulating or if they were both playing mind games, but clearly the tryst wreaked emotional havoc on the pair, and the group. Odd man out Pras still felt that the entire experience “brought a form of euphoria” to all three of them, which would sound revisionist if it hadn’t mirrored something Hill said a decade prior, even after openly acknowledging the heartbreak she went through. “The Fugees was supernatural love,” she’d tell Trace in 2005. “That’s the kind of love that can scale mountains, and create paradigms and strange dynamics.”
That’s also the kind of love that’s too intense to last. “If it wasn’t the baby, something else would’ve happened, and it would’ve exploded in different ways,” Wyclef later hypothesized.
Did Success Destroy The Fugees?
?“Ooh la la la.”
“Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide. I’m gonna fiiiiind you.”
“I play my enemieees like a game of chess.”
“Strumming my pain with his fingers…”
“I’ll be Nina Simone, and defecatin’ on your microphone.”?
Lauryn Hill was responsible for the most indelible moments from one of the most celebrated collections of music ever made, confirming what anyone who listened to Blunted had already deduced: She was the group’s true star. But to the masses, “the star” merely meant the singer, the sex appeal, the bankable face. Pop music’s default narrative is that of the male genius behind the boards bringing his vision to life by grooming the gifted ingenue. If Björk and Beyoncé and Grimes are still raging against that vestige of the patriarchy today, imagine how much more ingrained and insidious it was 20 years ago. Actually, no need to imagine:
Rolling Stone, 1996: “Jean, a musical jack-of-all-trades who raps, sings and plays guitar and keyboards, in addition to having written and produced almost all the music on The Score” [One look through the CD booklet — not Wikipedia — shows Hill and Jean had identical production and writing credits.]
Chris Schwartz, CEO of Ruffhouse, 1998: “A lot of people assumed that she was just the singer. I think when this new album comes out, she’s really going to get her due as an artist.”
The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2011: “Jean, Wyclef…Long regarded as the production mastermind behind the Fugees’ intoxicating blend of rap, soul and Haitian music.”
Wyclef himself, 2010: “It was hard to see who was the mastermind behind [The Score] because of Lauryn being at the forefront of the group…If somebody was a mastermind in a group why can’t they keep doing what they do over and over again? How come they can’t do it with other artists? That’s how you know who was the producer of the group. So I don’t have to tell you who that was. You can figure it out yourself…Remember when I talked about being the mastermind? What happened after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? There wasn’t a CD produced like that from her again.”
It’s worth noting that this narrative was also unfair to Pras, who was The Score’s sole executive producer. He was generally believed to be the most pop-minded of the three, and it was his idea for the group to take a stab at “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” He was the one who insisted the “Ready Or Not” video be a big-budget affair with a submarine plotline — a defining “hip-hop is blockbuster music now” moment. And he was the third wheel tasked with keeping this Fleetwood Mac-in-miniature Jenga tower from toppling. (“I was always trying to keep peace ‘cause I was looking at the bigger picture,” he reminisced in 2014.)
Wyclef was the first to drop a solo project, releasing The Carnival in 1997, which further fed into the assumption that he was the wizard behind the curtain. His album moved five million units and “Gone Till November” became a Top 10 hit, proving he was no fluke. But it was solo in name only — well, not even in name, since it was Presents The Carnival Featuring Refugee Allstars — as Pras and Lauryn were co-executive producers, and Lauryn contributed vocals and songwriting.
After that, he helped Pras break out on his own by producing “Ghetto Supastar,” which became another runaway Fugees spinoff success. Jean also served as co-Executive Producer on Pras’s album of the same name, but then he’d refuse to lend that apparent Midas touch to Hill.
“I don’t think that everybody was necessarily that happy that I decided to do a solo project,” Hill said in 1998, adding that she and Jean had gone an extended period without talking while her full-length was coming together. Her former manager recalled the singer saying at the time, “I can’t believe these muthaf*ckers. I’ve been talking about making my solo record for the longest and they’re doing everybody’s solo record but mine! I’m leaving the group, I’ve had it.” Rohan Marley even claimed Jean was blacklisting anyone who worked with Lauryn.
All this tension would lead Pras to famously say that Wyclef was “the cancer of the Fugees,” adding, “You can quote me. He’s the reason why it got wrecked to begin with, he’s the reason why it’s not fixed.”
Throw in the rumors that Hill got lowballed on the royalties from the group’s album and tour, and she had all the fuel she needed to create a masterpiece that would top her (possibly former) band’s masterpiece. And then there was the ex-factor, that most effective motivator. “Her solo career wasn’t based on ‘I wanna do an album.’ It was based on not being Wyclef’s side girl,” Questlove surmised in 2003.
He wasn’t off-base, if the lyrics are any indication. The Carnival contained “To All The Girls,” basically Jean’s glib rationalization about stepping out on his wife with Hill. A mere Nerf dart compared to Hill’s eventual truth bombs on tracks like “Lost Ones” (“My emancipation don’t fit your equation / I was on the humble you on every station…Now you wanna bawl over separation / Tarnish my image in the conversation”), “Ex-Factor,” “I Used To Love Him,” and “When It Hurts So Bad” (“Gave up my power / I existed for you / But who ever knew / The voodoo you’d do”).
Weeks after her debut dropped, Hill was still brushing off rumors that such lines were about her bandmate, but she’d effectively cop to it by 2005: “You have to remember that I had been through a tumultuous relationship, a painful relationship, and I was still hurting, and I hadn’t healed… Even though I was upset at someone, it was still coming from love.”
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill came out on August 25, 1998, and sold 422,000 copies in its first week, then a record opening week for a female artist. It kept pace with The Score — four weeks at No. 1, six platinum certifications — and then eclipsed it, going platinum another two times over. It was the first hip-hop release to win the Album of the Year Grammy, and Hill became the first female artist to bring home five Grammys in one night. In one fell swoop, she flexed on her ex and outscored The Score.
Within weeks of the release, she was being referred to as “the former Fugees singer,” but as late as January ‘99, Wyclef was still talking about the group’s third album as an inevitability. Tellingly, Clef and Hill would appear on Santana’s star-studded Supernatural that summer — on separate tracks.
Was It Ms. Hill’s Rebellion That Brought Down The Fugees?
“The Fugees was conspiracy to control, to manipulate, and to encourage dependence,” Hill told Trace in 2005. “I was not allowed to say I was great; that was considered arrogance, conceit.” Real or perceived, this toxic dynamic drove her to go the auteur route. Unlike her bandmates’ solo projects, Miseducation existed outside The Fugees’ circle of influence, and Hill even turned down chances to work with established names like RZA to ensure she was seen as the project’s singular visionary.
And so The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was “produced, written and arranged” by Hill, despite the fact that she worked closely with industry newcomers Johari Newton, Tejumold Newton, Vada Nobles, and Rasheem Pugh. Such was the trust, and naivety, among the parties that no paperwork was signed to formalize their partnership. The four would later sue Hill, claiming she didn’t properly credit them on 13 of the LP’s 14 tracks, including as primary songwriters on the single, “Everything Is Everything.”
“It went from we to I,” Nobles recalled in 2008. “Everything started out genuine but somewhere down the line, something switched,” “I tried my best to resolve it without lawyers but it became impossible.”
The legal battle took its toll on Hill — having to mix art and attorneys “fucked with her,” a friend remembered — and she eventually settled for a reported $5 million. She’d later express regret about that, and once again tie it back to her purported mistreatment while with The Fugees.
“I thanked a lot of people on that record that I shouldn’t have,” she explained to Trace. “There was a distortion of balance and I allowed people to take credit. Some people got too much, and some people got too little, like Johari, but at the time I was not aware of my impact on the earth. That was kept from me when I was with the Fugees.”
It was around this time, at the turn of the millennium, that Hill began to deviate from the celebrity paradigm, and soon the tabloid narrative took hold and would overshadow all that titanic music she’d created. Former band members said that she demanded that she be called Ms. Hill, she allegedly refused to speak to her touring band, she was no longer letting people shake her hand or touch her. There was an apocryphal quote floating around about not wanting white people to buy her music. She went in with religious mysterion Brother Anthony, started going to Bible study five times a week, fired her management team, and seemed to be rejecting the concept of money.
This all came to a head with her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 performance and album, recorded in 2001 and released in 2002. In retrospect, it’s a courageous sign-off, a final, unfiltered transmission before withdrawing from public life. But at the time, it was seen as a public unraveling, career suicide, the ramblings of a self-righteous artist suffering some sort of breakdown. Hill would emerge from her self-exile for her very own Sinead O’Connor moment in 2003 when she criticized the Catholic Church for its corruption and abuses during a Christmas performance at the Vatican. By that point, she was seen as industry poison, so finally the feeling was mutual.
Astoundingly, after all the alleged madness — primarily stoked by the media, for what is madder than a star shunning the media? — The Fugees reunited for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2004. The thing that’s always left out of Hill’s supposedly “unhinged” “downfall” is that it freed her up to be home with her kids. She explained as much when someone in the Block Party crowd asked where she’s been and she responded by pointing at one of her children and saying, “That’s where I’ve been.” Not mad, just a mom.
Had it not been for Chappelle, who’d soon pull off his own abrupt retreat from the celebrity-industrial complex, The Fugees’ last contribution to popular music very likely would’ve been a dang Sesame Street song. Instead, the one-off Block Party gig expanded into a 2005 European tour accompanied by new single, “Take It Easy.”
But the results were almost more demoralizing than the years of stagnancy and sniping. “Take It Easy” felt like a stale grab at Y2K sounds rather than a reflection of where hip-hop, or The Fugees, may be going. The tour was lackluster at best, a disaster at worst. “Those reunion shows shouldn’t have been done, because we wasn’t ready,” Jean admitted.
New songs in varying states of completion leaked, and in 2006 the press was still mentioning the group’s in-progress third album. But the project was ultimately scrapped. Pras was once again fed up and lobbed another inflammatory quotable, this time directed at Hill: “Before I work with Lauryn Hill again, you will have a better chance of seeing Osama Bin Laden and [George W.] Bush in Starbucks having a latte, discussing foreign policies.”
When The Fugees’ story is laid out in one condensed blast like this, there’s a sense of intractable dysfunction. When peppered across two decades, though, there’s an equilibrium. Or as Pras put it, “It was hateful, it was happiness, it was sadness, it was bitterness, it was lust…it was everything.” Despite all the public bickering, there once was an intense love at the group’s core, which may explain why the hard feelings never seem to stick, leaving the story open-ended. Just this year, Pras insisted he and Lauryn are and always have been cool, and Clef has indicated he’s open to getting the trio back together. But the future of The Fugees, if there is one, rests with Ms. Hill.
With her three-month stint for unpaid income taxes out of the way, there are signs of life from Lauryn Hill: The Nina Simone covers, Afropunk last year, Austin City Limits this year, regular studio sessions. Plus her kids are older now, so she might be more inclined to hit the road. Yes, “Lauryn Hill is back” is music’s “boy who cried wolf” — but how can fans not get sucked in when just a couple weeks ago she proved she can still produce Moments?
Still, it’s been 20 years since The Fugees conquered the world, so why not let them die in peace? An entire demographic of young listeners hasn’t coexisted with them, possibly more aware of Hill in conjunction with her tax trouble, or Wyclef as the corrupt dude who shared that creepy motorcycle photo and got a Young Thug co-sign, or Pras as… the other guy (in some ways the superior fate). Lamentable legacies all, but tiny footnotes when considering the way those three characters helped lay the foundation for today’s dominant hip-hop sounds.
The Score casually and seamlessly overlapped and alternated between rap, soul, R&B, reggae, folk, identity politics, goon rhymes, and love songs. It was radical then, it’s the template for so-called “unapologetically black” new classics like To Pimp A Butterfly or Lemonade now. Likewise, the group carved out a commercial space for the Benz-and-backpack duality that made stars out of Kanye and M.I.A.; Hill rapped, “Even after all my logic and my theory / I add a ‘motherf*cker’ so you ign’ant n—-s hear me,” Kanye echoed it 15 years later with “Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.” And Hill’s rapper-singer hybridization on The Score is a urtext for the “why every song sound like Drake featuring Drake” gray zone that now flourishes.
So that is why, after The Fugees suffered so many deaths over the years, we refuse to let them die. That is why there’s still a hunger for Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michel to reunite, as giants roaming across this landscape they created.
It’s improbable, but so were The Fugees.