When the New Jersey hip-hop trio Fugees regrouped to record their second album, they went underground—to the basement of Wyclef Jean's uncle, which was transformed into a recording studio and rechristened as the Booga Basement. The album that came out of that cellar, 1996's The Score, became one of the defining hip-hop albums of the '90s and launched Jean and his bandmates Lauryn Hill and Pras to stardom.
The homespun hip-hop production on The Score gives it a vibe not unlike a lengthy listening session with friends, complete with running gags that bust up the room; its sample list includes hooks from classic soul sides and sound-system-worthy beats, as well as bits borrowed from Enya, Francisco Tárrega, and The Moody Blues. Its lyrics are pointed and political, while also being laced with wit: "How many mics do we rip on the daily?" Hill and Jean crow on "How Many Mics," the album's first proper song. (If you use the intricate, incisive rhymes the trio casts across The Score as a predictor, the answer is "a lot.")
Fugees' take on the swaggering yet claustrophobic sonics of '90s East Coast hip-hop give The Score a charge that remains electric decades later, as the boastful "Fu-Gee-La" and the hazy title track prove. "Ready or Not," which flipped a late-'60s single by the Philly soul outfit The Delfonics into a rallying cry for Black music, and "Killing Me Softly With His Song," a boom-bap-propelled cover of the ode to musicians made famous by Roberta Flack in the early '70s, both defined late-'90s hip-hop and turned Hill into one of its biggest female stars. The former allowed her to show off her reference-packed, thoughtful MC skills, while the latter established her rich, confident alto as one of R&B's great voices. Hill's dual-threat presence, Jean's booming toasts, and Pras' knotty rhymes made Fugees a shining example of balance; The Score's sonic palette, which honored the New York area's then-burgeoning underground through precise use of massive hits and crate-dug gems, made the group's second album a key part of hip-hop's 1990s explosion.