With the Fugees on seemingly permanent hiatus since 1996’s multi-platinum The Score, interest has focused on the band’s solo projects. Of the trio — Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel “Pras” Michel — rapper and guitarist Wyclef Jean has been easily the most prolific.
Born in Haiti, Wyclef moved with his family to Brooklyn, NY at age nine. After relocating to New Jersey, he formed what would eventually become the Fugees (or Refugee Camp, a reference to Haitian refugees) with his cousin Pras and high school friend Lauryn Hill.
After the success of The Score, Wyclef issued his first solo project, Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival, with the broadly multi-cultural Refugee All-Stars — Pras, Hill, Melky Sedeck (Clef’s siblings), Cuban legend Celia Cruz, New Orleans’ Neville Brothers, and the I Threes (Bob Marley’s former backing singers). The album is, if anything, even more ambitious than The Score, drawing on Wyclef’s two biggest musical influences — the lyrical reggae of his homeland and the harder-edged hip-hop of urban America. The tension between these disparate styles has remained a feature of his solo work. The Carnival is an album of startling contrasts. Consider its first two singles — the radio-friendly “Gone Till November” (lush strings and a languid bittersweet melody) and “We Trying to Stay Alive,” recasting the Bee Gees disco staple as ghetto defiance. The Carnival‘s repeated refrain is “anything can happen.” With his affability and fluid voice, he is always more convincing when he represents wide-eyed global as opposed to narrowed-eye hardcore. To his credit, he seems to realize this, mocking both his own idealism and the street hood mentality in his entreaty to the All-Stars that precedes “Street Jeopardy.” “Guys, you have to be more gangsta, more blood, more gun talk, more people dying, more hardcore.” Where Wyclef succeeds is in the widening of hip hop to incorporate the island-drenched grab bag of Creole laments (“Yelé”), beach party skank (“Jaspora”) and a gorgeous haunting from the ghost of Marley on “Gunpowder,” a compelling plea to “stop the violence.” The Carnival is an astonishingly cohesive album, when all is said and done, and justifies its considerable ambition.
Clef occasionally appears to wrestle with his dual nature, and on The Ecleftic — 2 Sides II a Book, his split personality becomes even more apparent. The two sides of this particular book — earnest social activism and the bling bling urban allure of fame — come together less satisfyingly this time, as if the stitching is beginning to come apart. To be fair, this theme is overtly stated in the title itself, and on the stark black and white cover art, but elements of defensiveness are nonetheless apparent. This isn’t to say Wyclef is any less endearing — if anything, his ambiguity toward (and recognition of) his contradictions makes The Ecleftic warmer than previous work (as well as a target for urban purists). Once again, he daubs wildly from a bizarrely disparate palette, from Kenny Rogers to Mary J. Blige; Earth, Wind and Fire to Whitney Houston; ’80’s ska-band Bad Manners samples to Pink Floyd cover tunes. Wyclef is Everyman, the hip-hop Bono. Standouts include a collaboration with Blige on “911,” a heartfelt duet on the theme of wounded love which skirts the edge of melodrama; “Diallo,” this album’s equivalent of “Gunpowder,” a harrowing appeal against real world police brutality, featuring Youssou N’Dour; and “Perfect Gentleman,” party-player feminism at its best, with a surprisingly addictive hook (“Just ‘cuz she dances go-go / It don’t make her a ho, no / Maxine, put your dance shoes on / We going to the disco”). Somehow, he gets to have his cake and eat it, too.
At first glance, the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is not just contextually shocking, it’s ill-advised. He introduces it with a small skit in which a good ol’ boy state trooper pulls over the tour bus, then promises to let him go without charges if he (“the versatile rapper-musician from up North”) plays him “some rock.” Wyclef’s self-deprecating humor here paves the song’s way; for those still not convinced, he intersperses the pleasantly breezy rendition with spoken word explanation of how he first heard his brother play Pink Floyd (“a band from the British blocks”) when they lived in the projects — “whether you listenin’ to rock / or pumpin the hip hip hop / refugees on your box … from NJ to BK to the UK.” Even if you can see the stitching by the end, his exuberant attempts to unite global musical styles makes it damn near impossible not to forgive him some heavy-handedness. The Ecleftic is a sprawling mess with many strong songs, a vast array of moons revolving around one very eccentric planet.
Wyclef takes a lot of heat for his mediocre skills as an MC, which is a little unfair since — objectively, at least — his claim to musical status is not as a rapper, front and center. He is also a guitar player, a songwriter and a producer. His eclecticism is his strength, after all, and Masquerade definitely continues to make that case, even if the album begins with a predominance of hip-hop-centric songs. While decrying thug culture, he nonetheless shows some ambivalence towards it, simultaneously mocking the gangsta lifestyle and representing it. In “80 Bars,” he lays down the challenge: “Y’all wanna take my spot / You got a better chance puttin’ a gorilla in a headlock / I’m too focused I can see through your lens / You ain’t a G, just a wannabe kingpin / So, the next time y’all wanna pay for protection / I suggest that you hit up the Haitian Sicilian.” In fact, the “masquerade” of the title is that very disconnection between the braggadocio of the “street” hip-hop artist and the infinitely less glamorous (and less truthful) reality: “You wanna claim you run da block / You’re a masquerade / Givin information to the cops / You’re a masquerade / I mean you never seen a rock / You’re livin’ in a…masquerade.” He’s not above bravado (“I ain’t gonna brag and boast / And said I did it all / But I’m the only rapper / that play Carnegie Hall” — “What a Night”), but on Masquerade, Wyclef still manages to hold onto the core of what makes his music appealing.
Whether it’s the Chinese flute weaving the back story on “Peace God” (“crouchin’ tiger style”) or a plaintive piano motif on “80 Bars,” a sense of spectacle remains, the melodic and pop-cultural babble of a larger world making welcome, if sometimes startling, intrusions into the hip-hop arena. References to Kurt Cobain vie with Scarface allusions; Hendrix rubs up against Casablanca; Gucci versus Timbs; John Denver and Busta Rhymes; Crips and Bloods and the Middle East. There are Tom Jones collaborations, true, and Bob Dylan covers (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as a eulogy not only for Biggie, Tupac and Aaliyah, but for Wyclef’s father, who died in a freak 2001 accident — and, not content with that, for the thousands who died in Manhattan on September 11th). But a genuinely universal, if conflicted, heart underlies the lilting island cadences and soft-edged hip-hop. Masquerade is a more even record than its two predecessors, presented thematically as a radio station that doesn’t go by or genre or demographics. Yet just as there are fewer low points, there are correspondingly fewer highs.