As the de facto front woman of the hip-hop trio The Fugees, Lauryn Hill pioneered a new brand of conscious rap that was inflected with strains of reggae music. Their music was a much-needed foil for the in your face boom-bap of the conflict-charged hard-hop of the 90s. Infused with a distinct sense of history, The Fugees were never afraid to name names or get rough, but it was Hill’s soulful voice, continuously rising to the top of the mix on tracks like “Ready Or Not”, that made the group seem like a viable alternative to the hard-hearted gangsterism ethos that dominated the period. Like De La Soul before them, The Fugees were determined to suggest a more hopeful approach to the standard hip-hop narrative, and Hill especially arrived at her sound through the dialect of soul music, with work that stressed the power of community, love and the moral victory inherent in simply surviving oppression.
And as if this were not enough Hill’s landmark solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill fostered the development of a genre in the form of the neo-soul movement. It would take about ten years for the industry to catch up with her, when in the mid-2000s producers like J Dilla and emcees like Kanye West would capitalize on Hill’s ability to color her beats with a blooming humanism that, propelled by pain, were nevertheless drenched in the celebratory horns and dance-floor Motown bass that dared you to deny the beauty of her spirit.
But more than anything Lauryn Hill represents an incredible confluence of undiluted talent. With a voice that feels like the purest form of prayer and a flow so forceful, paired with rhymes that’ll make your jaw drop, the many sides of Lauryn Hill are on constant joyful display. As much as Hill may have faded into the background in recent years, musicians like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe have clearly taken cues from this great original and her mark on contemporary hip hop and soul music has been cemented as a lasting and positive influence.
The Score (1996) by The Fugees
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) by Lauryn Hill
Karriem Riggins’ tribute to Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner
“My idea was to chop a song that is so important to hip hop and also pay homage to 1 of the funkiest groups from one of the funkiest states. Ohio Players’ music will forever be relevant! RIP Sugarfoot.”
Hummingbird by Local Natives
Listening to the new Local Natives album Hummingbird is like browsing through an indie rock phone book. You’ll pick up on Fleet Foxes’ harmonic dreamscapes and the oblique song structure of bands like Grizzly Bear or St. Vincent; groups that always come at their emotional register from odd angles. But where those bands offer experimentation as an attempt to get at a certain mood, a proper tone in which to express the idea of the song, Local Natives seem to tag on their oddities after the fact. It’s almost as if the band had an idea of themselves as being on the cutting-edge, and so, whenever a song doesn’t quite square up with this conception they have of themselves they simply brand on a peculiar instrumental take. The group is particularly guilty of using drums in this way. “Heavy Feet”, “Three Months”, and “Wooly Mammoth” all rely on these frantic, stilted drum performances which don’t gel at all with the rest of their respective tracks and mainly just distract from the half-baked songwriting.
The insecurity of Local Natives’ position comes through best on their cover of the Talking Heads song “Warning Sign” from their previous album Gorilla Manor. David Byrne’s bugged out vocal performance is tamed down into a soothing choral take that kind of short-circuits the whole song, depriving it of its urgency and the immediacy of its last-ditch emotional appeal. From this case study we can kind of reverse engineer the whole Local Natives ethos. Because it shows just where the misunderstanding comes from. Experimental music is not about obscuring traditional song structures — the Talking Heads did not begin with this smoothed down version and then graffiti all over the track with their freakazoid studio trickery and gonzo personalities. The push towards new modes of expression is intrinsically tied to the insufficiency of old forms. We invent fresh words because the old ones won’t speak for us anymore.
What’s really unfortunate about this situation is that when Local Natives are content to rely on more traditional song structures on the straightforward ballads like “Mt. Washington” and “Colombia” the fact that they are heavily derivative of other bands simply stops being a valid argument. The beauty of these tracks is so intensely felt and absolutely sincere that you have to wonder why they feel the need to shroud themselves in the trappings of avant-gardism elsewhere on the album. This record is going to do well, its in conversation with all the right talking points of contemporary indie rock to guarantee that much. But I think that Local Natives as a group are going to work themselves into a corner if they continue to pretend at being something they are not.
FIDLAR by FIDLAR
FIDLAR are an L. A. skate punk band that lean more towards Blink-182 than Black Flag. They write songs with titles like “Cheap Beer” and “Wake Bake Skate”, taking cues from the unabashed adolescent first-world problem preaching of bands like Descendents. But unlike their precursors in that group they never really manage to forge an identity out of these preoccupations. At their best the band are a blast to listen to, and occasionally the massive amounts of energy they bring to the table does provide a springboard for some great blitzes of punk fury. “White on White” in particular got my blood pumping with its flip-the-table riffing and tub-thumping rhythm section.
And the album’s production is actually pretty spectacular, maintaining a grungy, coked-out, after-after-party feel without reducing the music to a garbled mess. The layering of different instruments on “No Waves”, especially, is brilliant, as different guitars shimmer over a buzzing backbeat. But as the album runs on (and to their credit FIDLAR keep it brief, reeling it in to a terse 39 minutes), the magic quickly wears off. The problem mainly stems from an inability to create moods. I’d make an exception for “Paycheck” which cleverly sets the tone with a creepy, ghostly choir, which is punctured by blisters of guitar, implying that the nine-to-five lifestyle is just death with interruptions. But otherwise these tracks tend to announce themselves immediately in the most obvious way before dragging on for two-to-three minutes.
What you’re left with in the end is a relentlessly generic record. It’s hard to imagine just who this music might be for. Purists are gonna’ be looking for something a little more sophisticated and those looking for a good time can find cheaper thrills elsewhere. Like YOLO, FIDLAR (Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk) only serves to remind us that maybe there are better uses for our time than binging on a genre that’s starting to show its age. There’s definitely a disconnect that comes from hearing a band tout a live-for-the-moment ethos as they dwell on the musical styles of the past.