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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Fugees' cover of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" holds its own and then some

In reinterpreting Roberta Flack's soul classic, Lauryn Hill does the heavy lifting, but she's also never alone.

I've already written a few posts dedicated to covers in the first month and a half of this project. Sometimes, I don't even know until doing research that they were covers, as was the case for "Dancing in the Moonlight" and "Don't Know Why." Other times, I've been very much aware of the fact that the recording isn't the first done of the song; U2 and Green Day's live version of "The Saints Are Coming" is a prime example, and the Friends of Distinction's take on "Grazing in the Grass" is another. While those two experiences are quite different, and the latter relies on prior knowledge, I actually heard all four of those covers before hearing their original versions. In the case of "The Saints Are Coming," I came across it while looking back at the post-Katrina rebirth of New Orleans, and for "Grazing in the Grass" I remember my father telling me that it was a cover the first time I heard it years ago.

From a personal standpoint, today's cover is different from the ones I've previously discussed because I did hear the older, more popular version first. Because of my parents' age and affinity for 70s music, I knew of Roberta Flack's chart-topping version of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" long before I ever heard Fugees' cover. I really enjoy both versions, and could write a lot about each of them, but I'm consistently drawn more to Fugees' version. While Flack's take is serene, almost otherworldly in its vocal delivery, and has a much fuller backing, the minimal instrumental on Fugees' cover allows Lauryn Hill's forward, soulful vocals to truly shine in all their melismatic glory.

(Interestingly, Roberta Flack's version wasn't the original either — the track's songwriter Lori Lieberman was the first to record the tune, with its lyrics inspired by a Don McLean concert she attended. Her recording, featuring just her acoustic guitar and her wide vocal delivery, was released in 1972. Flack heard Lieberman's version that same year and began working on her cover, which hit stores in January 1973 and would go on to be the year's longest-reigning number-one and win Record of the Year. Fugees then released their version in 1996, which they recorded after member Pras Michel realized that the album would benefit from more singing.)

Ms. Lauryn Hill takes center stage the moment the track begins, and she never lets it go. Simply put, her voice is special, and "Killing Me Softly" let the world hear just how special it is in an introduction that is all vocals aside from a faint organ. Echoing Roberta Flack, Hill sings two vocal lines which weave in and out of each other, before a third line joins in as it and the other two then move in block voices through to the section's end. Between the strength of Hill's singing and the song's haunting harmony — ending on a somewhat surprising major chord — the opening remains one of the most distinctive and powerful of the past few decades.

The song's beat likely sounds familiar to hip-hop fanatics, especially those attuned to the 90s scene: it's the beat from A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebum" ...which has a sample itself, but I disgress. The recognizable beat lays the groundwork for the rest of the track; in fact, in many sections it's the only instrumental element, meaning it really does some heavy lifting to keep the song's groove. The song's hip hop feel is further solidified by Wyclef Jean's ad libs, which are introduced in a somewhat dense soundscape between the intro and the first verse. I kind of wrote off the ad libs at first, but upon further listens I came to realize how much they do to reinforce the groove in the chorus. In accenting a couple beats and subdivisions and providing some rhythmic dissonance by switching between starting on downbeats or upbeats, Wyclef's "one time" and "two times" callouts become an extension of the drumbeat as they simultaneously interact with Lauryn Hill's singing.

Other than that, the only element of note is the reggae-style one drop bass in the chorus. The bass grounds the harmony in Hill's vocal lines with a very welcome low end, the absence of which in the verses is only felt even more when the bass drops out for the next verse. Again, Fugees' cover of "Killing Me Softly" is first and foremost a Lauryn Hill showcase. To be able to carry verses with no chords or bass, but just a solo vocal above a drumbeat, requires nothing short of an elite voice, and Hill has just that and showcases it in multiple ways. Her control is masterful, as exhibited through the increasing use of melisma throughout the track. Hill's melismas — changing of notes over a single syllable of text, namely "song" in this track — provide the cover with its most unique moments, especially near the song's end when the melismas are at their biggest. The drawn-out "song"s with the movement within them remind me of warbling on an old record or cassette tape, which only becomes more intense and noticeable with each repetition. Such an effect could sound like it's getting out of hand, but Hill's vocal control prevents that thought from even entering the listener's mind.

As much of a masterpiece as "Killing Me Softly With His Song" already was courtesy of Roberta Flack, in their unique cover Fugees elevated the track to new heights. Through the unparalleled vocal stylings of Lauryn Hill, it became an anthem in its combination of soul and hip hop, of vulnerability yet assertiveness in its narrative. In taking a prominent place on Fugees' second and ultimately final album, The Score, it also paved the way for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in which Hill expands upon both her singing and her genre reach. This cover then occupies a vital place in the history of hip hop, as it presents a turning point from which R&B and (neo) soul find new life through their intertwining with everything hip hop has to offer as a genre.


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