As nice as they wanna be

Milo Miles reviews The Fugees for Sharps and Flats.

Published June 13, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

in1990, the big-time public image of rap music was established: a row of nearly naked female butts on the cover of 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." Scatter around some purloined Glock revolvers to symbolize Ice-T's notoriously banned "Cop Killer," and you have the rap scene as it has stayed, frozen, for years. Casual use of the term "rap" proves that, for people other than fans, the style means only "gangsta rap." At the top of the pop charts, the subgenre aptly characterized by essayist Ellen Willis as "macho death culture'' has dominated every other type of rap. Sensitive intruders like P.M. Dawn are the exceptions that prove the (harsh) rule.

Success breeds complacency, even for the hardest trash talkers. For many months, new gangsta releases have hinted that the bit is getting played out. Slower beats as well as the arty, and opaque, innovations of the Wu-Tang Clan and its offshoots are signs that straight-shooting won't do any more. And many young toughs release debuts that are shocking only in their roteness. Opinions differ about nihilistic gangstas, but there's nothing to like about bored nihilistic gangstas.

Still, some recent releases suggest rap has more to say, and can even snag new audiences, by going back to the future, when it was a more inclusive, witty and unpredictable music.

The biggest rap breakout of 1996 is the Fugees, a trio currently making an assault on the number one spot of the Billboard 200 album chart with their second release,"The Score" (Ruffhouse/Columbia). The Fugees (from refugee) are two rapping Haitian cousins, guitarist Wyclef "Clef" Jean and Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, and an acute female rapper, Lauryn "L- Boogie" Hill, a high school classmate of Pras in New Jersey. They handle most of the production here. Taking off from the smooth beats and languid tempos of Dr. Dre and Warren G, but without their atmosphere of menace, the Fugees accent their voices with little more than acoustic guitar and vocal hooks like simple chants, faux yodels, or seductive giggles. "The Score" delivers lo-fi rap, rap unplugged, so one has to listen closer, which is a reward here.

A blizzard of media and culture references always swarms around Clef, Pras and L: "vanish like Menudo," "Fuck the sheriff, I shot John Wayne/ Yeah, threw him off the runaway train in the movie "Shane." But the woman has the most words here. Has it been since the Funky Four Plus One at least a dozen years back that the sexes have mixed so seamlessly in a rap group? L sounds like an equal voice, maybe even more than equal, and not just a foil or, worse, a token to keep those bourgeois feminist ho's off the case. As she puts it: "While you playing like Al Capone I'll be like Nina Simone and defecate on your microphone." Her remake of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" strips the dated goop off the original and is worthwhile for texture surprise alone. L correctly announces that right now she can kill the competition softly with this sound. Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" is reworded much more radically by Pras (shades of Toots and the Maytals' wondrous "Country Roads") and made at home in Brooklyn.

The master stroke on "The Score" is "Cowboys," a definitive examination (and rejection) of a theme that's hovered around rap from the start. The thrust is that everybody likes to play with guns but nobody wants to take the bullet. The Fugees don't deny the romance of real-life danger, but they make a remarkable case that schoolyard psychology hasn't changed, even as the streets around have lost all forgiveness. L ends the cut on an ironic but hopeful note, with a quote from the Intruders' "Cowboys to Girls." Despite a couple of lapses on the album (particularly a stupid, unfunny skit about a Chinese restaurant owner), the Fugees teach that acceptance and compassion are strength, too.

Busta Rhymes is another surprise hitmaker with a Caribbean influence, this time dancehall reggae vocals. What's most delightful about Busta is that first, as a former member of the Leaders of the New School from some years back, he's a veteran rapper who refuses to shut up and fade away (a trait he shares with LL Cool J). Second, his Top 10 single "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check/Everything Remains Raw" combines boasts and tales of woe that are at once funny and corrosive, just like many champ tunes throughout the history of rap ("The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow, "Double Dutch Bus" by Frankie Smith, "Why Is It (Funk Dat)" by Sagat).

The rest of Busta Rhymes' album "The Coming" (Elektra) wanders around more than is good for it (the framing device of Busta's life story is especially tedious), but his pervasive cackles and guffaws in the background form the disarming rhythm move of the season.

The sheer excitement of finding new ways to apply rap used to be one of its chief delights. But for quite a while, finding fresh context for rap has been as profitable as hen dentistry. So one approaches "Salaam," the debut US release from a pair of Senegalese rappers called Positive Black Soul, with heavy skepticism. Rap-like breaks have been a lame gimmick on a number of African albums over the years. Moreover, there's no question France's MC Solaar, the reigning non-English rapper, is strictly for specialists. And Doug-E-Tee Barry and DJ Awadi of Positive Black Soul are MC Solaar proteges. But against expectations, every track on "Salaam" kicks in with a hook or a pulse or a lyric (sometimes in translation) that holds the ear.

The group benefits from the rise of more reflective dance styles like Acid Jazz and Trip Hop. Doug-E-Tee and DJ don't have to compete with American acts to be so slammin', and the softer cadences of languages like French and Senegalese Wolof can cut through lighter beats. Salaam includes smart samples from reggae artists like Burning Spear as well as one from England's great lost disco group, Imagination. Traditional acoustic string instrument and folk chants sit comfortably next to electronic percussion.

African identity caught between the tribe and the television is Positive Black Soul's grand theme, nowhere better addressed than in "The Executioner Is Black." Because the arrangement is simple, with lick and rhythms both stark and unobtrusive, this number requires you to read along with the translation as Doug-E-Tee and DJ run through a very vivid and concrete description of disillusionment with corrupt government and false democracy. "You're not patriotic, OK, some will harp on/But I'm not any less than those ministers wearing Chevignon/ They eat French food, their wives don the latest English fashion/ While I dash about to make ends meet Senegalese style."

In the best tradition of rap, "The Executioner Is Black" is frank and fascinating. Only smart performers with a future could have made it.

By Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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