One of the intriguing properties of the brain is its ability not just to detect patterns, but to complete them, even where none exist. Think of the famous optical illusion of the false triangle – all you actually see are three circles with slices taken out of them, arranged facing one another like a meeting of pac-men with angles in between. But they are arranged to suggest a triangle, and they more than suggest it – the brain fills out the triangle sides, “seeing” a shape that isn’t there.
And so it is that after knowing the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” for 17 years I could sit down and think to myself, “I’ll just check who does which verse on it”. “Killing Me Softly” is a hip-hop record, by a hip-hop group, with a hip-hop beat and hip-hop adlibs, so my memory hallucinates rapping where none exists. In the Fugees context this makes perfect sense – arresting stylistic shift, showcase for Lauryn Hill’s vocals, LP centrepiece – and obviously it made excellent commercial sense too, as a crossover move to introduce the group to a wider audience. (Though even in the UK, distracted by its Britpop brouahaha, we’re almost at the point now where hip-hop is the presumed grammar of pop – providing the musical and stylistic cues hitmakers of any stripe, backroom or front-of-house, instinctively reach for.)
“Killing Me Softly” is a stark record – you have to go back a long way, maybe to the early rock’n’rollers, to find a number one that gets this much atmosphere out of just beat and voice. The kind of atmosphere that’s created weighs the song down for me, though. In the non-specialist (meaning indie-specialist) music press of the time, the go-to phrase when talking approvingly about hip-hop was “head-nodding” – a description which landed for me halfway between being lost in the rapture of the groove and dozing off in a long afternoon meeting. “Killing Me Softly” suffers from a particularly head-nodding beat – it sits at the crossover point where cool becomes snoozy.
Luckily, it also has Lauryn Hill’s performance. By structuring a soul song like a rap, the Fugees make “Killing Me Softly” more vivid – the illusion the ad-libs and beat create is that Hill isn’t singing a song, she’s being passed the mic at the start of each verse, working through how she feels about the experience in real time, even as she tries to capture it in song. On the “read each one out loud” verse, three layers of time – the feelings the singer exposed, his performance exposing them, and Hill trying to find her own words for it – telescope into one moment that catches the uncomfortable intimacy of music and what it can do for us. It’s powerful enough I almost forget this is a cover of a song that’s probably about Don bloody MacLean.