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Dec 13

FUGEES – “Killing Me Softly”

Popular72 comments • 5,715 views

#741, 8th June 1996

KMSOne 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.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #58 If I can shoot bunnies, then I can shoot Fascists.

    The Manics are the only band where I bought a record on the strength of seeing the lyrics – they took an ad out for The Holy Bible which was simply a close-printed copy of the lyric sheet (unless I’m dreaming all this). I might have bought it anyway – well reviewed and I’d loved a couple of their singles – but that sealed the deal.

    Bands as cultural vectors – the Smiths were my world age 15/16 but I never once bothered to watch any of the films or investigate any of the actors Morrissey showcased on the sleeves. All a band can do is hold doors open – some go through, some don’t.

  2. 62
    James BC on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Re #34 and various posts saying the Fugees were PG rated: I really don’t think so. Yes, they were mostly non-violent and a lot more benign than a lot of rap at the time, but The Score is full of drug references and one track near the end (Mista Mista) is pretty stark language-wise. There was nothing toned-down or compromised about them that I can see.

  3. 63
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Jan 2014 #

    If we’re talking about worlds transformed by fans engaging with all of the references in bands’ bumph, I’d take Chumbawamba over the Manics any day.

  4. 64
    Rory on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Although I couldn’t help but admire Hill’s vocals on this version of the song, the other members’ touches never worked for me, so I always imagined that I preferred Roberta Flack’s version, half-remembered from years before. I’ve finally done what I should have last week, though, and re-listened to Flack’s as well. I’d forgotten how steeped in that tinkly, glittery early-’70s MOR soundscape it was, once you got past the a capella intro. And something about Flack’s delivery falters along the way; it feels just a bit too cosy, where Hill’s retains that sense of desperate yearning, that “stop it, you’re killing me” feeling. What I really want is an a capella reading of the song from Hill throughout (and an equivalent Flack version for good measure), but I still think I’ll change last week’s 6 to a 7. I’m going to have to pick up The Score and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill now…

  5. 65
    Rory on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Re #12 “they sound as though they want to recast this song rather than cynically cover it”: according to Wikipedia (citing Chris Nickson’s 1999 biography of Hill), they wanted to do precisely that, but the songwriters refused them permission to rework it.

    The Lori Lieberman version is on YouTube as well, as a fan-made video. Trigger warning for Tom: beware the Eye of Sour Don around the 3:00 mark.

  6. 66
    DanH on 14 Jan 2014 #

    #17: I totally agree on the Billboard Top 10s being really unrepresentative in the mid ’90s. I heard this quite a bit that year, and the Top 10s look weird without it. I can think of other songs that would be on those charts if the rules weren’t different:

    “One Headlight”
    “Mr. Jones”
    most of the radio songs from Jagged Little Pill (I do see “You Oughta Know” was #6 in 1996, but it was a radio hit the year before, and appears to be the flipside to “You Learn,” which was the umpteenth lead single from JLP)
    “Fly” (Sugar Ray)
    and MOST NOTABLY, a bunnied track that we’ll see early in 1997…

  7. 67
    punctum on 14 Jan 2014 #

    This piece is poorly written but does give the background to why the Hot 100 has been the way it has been since 1991: http://consequenceofsound.net/2011/10/nod-your-head-an-ode-to-nielsen-soundscan/

  8. 68
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Since we’ve been talking about Top Of The Pops, I believe this is the record at #1 when the show moved in the schedule from Thursdays to Fridays. As any old school Doctor Who fan will know, this was the BBC’s favoured euthanasia method – a shift to 7.30 on Fridays meant a fatal clash with Coronation Street.

    TOTP was past its ratings prime for a long time before this (and survived for a DECADE after, so the comparison with Who isn’t quite fair) – this move was a very big blow, though, to any conceit of centrality TOTP still held.

  9. 69
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    “I remember a piece published by the NME circa 1973 which commented “there’s nowhere you can escape the current Top 20 except perhaps a nunnery” – in a tone which suggested the writer wished it were otherwise. You certainly wouldn’t say that today, it’s a lot more of a niche market except with the biggest hits.

    Mapman #55 – I forget which thread this cropped up in recently, but I was amazed to read about YouTube views of tribute or spoof videos counting towards a Hot 100 position, which meant that a daft spoof of the Wrecking Ball video was enough for Miley Cyrus to deny Lorde a 10-week run at number one. Time for a rethink there, I reckon.”

    It was here, Erithian!

    One point, though: how many of the people who were the age you are now in 1973 would have known much about the then Top 20? But you’re citing Lorde and Miley. So if pop’s got shallower in its appeal it’s also got a lot broader.

  10. 70
    Erithian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Hmm! Well for one thing I’m not sure how typical an FT reader/contributor is of the general audience; for another I did make an exception for the biggest hits. Those two were among the biggest records of 2013 (I first saw Lorde on Jools, and Miley’s antics are pretty inescapable), and I reckon I’m fairly out of touch on middling-sized hits these days!

    By an oddity of timing I was exactly the same age when I became a dad as my dad was when I was born. So it doesn’t quite match (in 1973 my dad was four years younger than I am today), but when I was the age my twins are now – October 1976 – Dad would have been much more exposed to the Top 20 than I am now, if only from my watching TOTP. He’d have known, let’s see: 50s/60s survivors Elvis, Acker Bilk, Manfred Mann and Twiggy; Rod Stewart, Demis, Kiki possibly, the Wurzels, the Real Thing and definitely Abba. And I’d usually play Mum and Dad the latest records I’d bought, so that’s Gheorghe Zamfir and Pussycat. The twins show very little interest in music and nor do most of their friends, so I don’t get exposure to the current Top 20 that way. Your average 50something would know, let’s see: Tinie Tempah? Kanye? Ellie Goulding? Beyonce, Eminem and Rihanna, obv; might know the Pharrell if they’d seen Despicable Me 2 with the kids. I don’t think the awareness is as wide by any means.

  11. 71
    Rory on 30 Jan 2014 #

    My almost-7-year-old son has exposed 46-year-old me to Lawson, whose two biggest hits, “Taking Over Me” and “Juliet”, are both pretty good. No Popular bunnies there yet.

    Pharrell surely also known via his collaboration with Daft Bunnies? That was pretty inescapable. His now-bunnied solo hit also gained extra web exposure through the 24-hour video stunt – I saw that before DM2.

  12. 72
    hectorthebat on 7 Mar 2016 #

    Critic watch:

    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Blender (USA) – The Greatest Songs Ever, One Song Added Every Other Month
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 337
    Dave Marsh (USA) – Postscript (102 Songs) to The Heart of Rock & Soul (1998)
    Ego Trip (USA) – Hip Hop’s 40 Greatest Singles by Year 1980-98 (1999) 3
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1990s (2001) 101
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 90s (2011) 41
    XXL (USA) – 40 Years of Hip-Hop: Top 5 Singles by Year (2014)
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Spin (USA) – Singles of the Year 1
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 18
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    Mixmag (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    NME (UK) – Singles of the Year 30
    Vox (UK) – Singles of the Year 20
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 26

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