The Fugees are a Neapolitan treat, sweet in three layers: rhyme, sample and groove. On its second album, the hip-hop threesome cops a grim veneer but escapes gangsta clichés by playing around with the formulas. Witticisms like singer and rapper Lauryn “L” Hill’s description of a mean lover — “He tried to burn me like a perm” — or rapper and guitarist Clef’s mix of sermonizing and wigging out between songs don’t so much lighten The Score’s mood as humanize it, lifting the Fugees out of the stereotypes they court and lending depth to their inner-city sketches.
Hill, Clef and toasting rapper Pras converse in French, creole and English, proclaiming, insinuating and stretching meaning. The group’s sampling style flows from a distinctive attitude toward cover versions. Not only do the Fugees dip into classics like “I Only Have Eyes for You,” they fully reshape Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” to accommodate their own stories. The Marley ballad becomes a tribute to the trench towns of Brooklyn, N.Y., and New Jersey and the Flack song a comical boast about the crew’s skills. Beneath these reinventions cook rhythms that recall trip-hop’s origins in rap’s own outer encampments — the ground occupied by De La Soul (to whom the Fugees offer props) and the Jungle Brothers.
But Neapolitan is also a term that can mean “new city.” The Fugees manifest that flavor in their portrait of the neighborhood as ever changing, slightly fantastic and brimming with inspiration. “Cowboys” rides the range with ghetto dudes who yodel as skillfully as they shoot. “Manifest” imagines Judas Iscariot as a homeboy stuck between a promise and a threat. And “The Beast” reworks that tired cliché about New York as a many-legged monster into a cool dose of dread that could give Dr. Dre a scare.
The Fugees’ roots in reggae give them a solid base in song and a basic philosophy that’s richer than the money-or-nothing ethic that dulls much of rap these days. Without being sanctimonious, The Score paints the ghetto as a mythical landscape, one that can inspire pride as well as sorrow. Like Wu-Tang Clan, the Fugees view the world as their movie, complete with stunts and special effects. But one is more likely to get this crew’s jokes.