In the years following the release of The Fugees breakthrough smash The Score, Wyclef Jean’s career has encountered numerous highs and lows. While he has garnered even more international fame by writing hits for everyone from Whitney Houston to Carlos Santana to Bono, his street cred has taken some hits in light of the failure of former refugee brethren like John Forte and his very public falling-out with battle-MC Canibus. On top of that there was the massive success of former partner-in-rhyme/ love interest Lauryn Hill, who acquired multiple Grammys and platinum plaques on the strength of an album that featured several thinly veiled accounts of her relationship with Wyclef. In the past couple of years his public persona has seemed to overshadow his considerable musical accomplishments. His 1997 album The Carnival was a highly entertaing dish of international musical gumbo, with nods to everything from Afro-Cuban to Haitian Creole, from folk to hip-hop, from reggae to disco. Truth be told, despite the album’s popularity it remains one of the more slept-on albums of that year. And in many ways it is a more exciting and interesting listen than Lauryn Hill’s solo debut, which critics gushed over as if it were Inner Visions, What’s Goin’ On, and It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold us Back put together. While Clef certainly lacks the lyrical, singing or rhyming chops of L-Boogie, he is an undeniably gifted musician, producer, and songwriter who possesses versatility that is unmatched by almost anyone in popular music today. Wyclef is not an MC in the "mic controller" sense that one thinks of Rakim, he is more of a "master of ceremonies" who chooses to try and rock everyone from the block party to the dorm room, the club to the convention hall. This almost obsessive need to be "everything to everybody" is both a blessing and a curse for Jean. When he succeeds he takes hip-hop to places most could never foresee, when he fails the results seem almost laughably forced. This hit-and-miss scenario is even more evident on his sophomore solo LP, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book. Yet despite the album’s shaky moments, it is impossible to find a more ambitious and diverse album since, well, The Carnival.
Clef addresses the state of the Fugees immediately on the opening track, "Where Fugee At?". While extending an offer for reconciliation on the hook, "Lauryn if you’re listening, Pras if you’re listening, give me a call I’m in the lab in the Booga basement" he also takes time to deliver a few digs at his estranged band mates, dubbing Pras an "eight-bar superstar" and telling Lauryn "Stop lying to the public! You wanted it so bad you took all the production credit". Indeed, old wounds are slow to heal and this song probably won’t have L-Boogie picking up the phone to collab any time soon. He follows this bloodletting with the bizarre "Kenny Rogers-Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate". While it’s a testament to Clef’s clout that he could get the country legend to reinterpret his chorus from "The Gambler" over Pharoahe’s "Simon Says" beat and a testament to his mischievous sense of humor to even attempt it, after the novelty wears off there’s not much left to hold onto. The same can be said for the presence of WWF star The Rock, who intones his catchphrase on the bouncy club track "It Doesn’t Matter". More successful collaborations follow: Wyclef lays down a nice acoustic guitar line as he trades lovesick verses with hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige on "911". On the same track he also attempts high notes the sometimes blissfully off-key Blige wouldn’t even dare, with fairly cringe-worthy results. Nevertheless, the emotion and melody of the song shine through enough to make even the troublesome moments almost endearing. Another bright spot is "Runaway", which features the legendary Earth, Wind, and Fire alongside Clef’s proteges The Product G&B (who most recently appeared on Santana’s "Maria, Maria"). The result is a fine update of EWF’s "Brazilian Rhyme" where old and new school coincide rather than clash.
Ironically, the weakest moments on the album come on the most straightforward hip-hop songs. Never a great MC, Wyclef has still shone that he can hold his own on the two Fugee albums and later on the Carnival. On this album however, several of the hip-hop cuts feature unimaginative beats and suspect rhyming. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sleep-inducing posse cut, "Da Cypher", which features a cast of unknowns (Supreme C, Marie Antoinette, & Hope) spitting lukewarm lyrics over a forgettable track. Whoever is responsible for the lines "My name should be Robin Banks, the way I be robbin’ banks" needs to retire immediately. Not much better is Wyclef’s strip-club anthem "Perfect Gentleman", an ode to working girls which features the adolescent hook: "Just cause she dance the go-go, that don’t make her a ho-no". It’s times like this when Clef could have used another strong artist (say…. L.Boogie?) in the studio to prevent him from indulging in every impulse that came to mind. Things improve on most of the other hip-hop compositions: "However You Want It" takes a few well-deserved shots at Clef’s fair-weather friend Canibus, "Hollyhood to Hollywood" is a cautionary tale about the left coast which recalls the Fugees’ "Cowboys", and "Thug Angels" is an engaging track that channels Haiti via the Dirty South.
The most affecting song comes in the form of "Diallo", a reggae-fueled eulogy to slain immigrant Amadou Diallo, a tragic victim of the NYPD’s "shoot first, ask questions later" tactics in the Giuliani era. The song starts as a slow burner, growing in indignation with each verse. By the end, the intensity and tempo of the track have reached a fever pitch as Youssou N’Dour adds a plaintive African wail to the mix. After the fervor of "Diallo" comes to a close, Clef opts to lighten the mood again with the obligatory weed homage "Something About Mary". The topic has been run into the ground over and over again and the folky funk of "Mary" is unremarkable, however, Wyclef saves the day with his musicianship. The song closes with an interpolation of Sly and The Family Stone’s "I Wanna Take You Higher" and features some deft guitar work as Clef sends shots out to his ax-slinging idols. This leads perfectly into the song’s surprising closer, a cover of Pink Floyd’s "Wish You Were Here". Delivered sincerely with no trace of irony, Wyclef manages to transform this melancholy masterpiece into a celebration-right down to a rap at the end of it thanking his brother for turning him on to Floyd as a kid. The album ends amidst guitar strumming as Wyclef calls out "from N.J….to BK….to the U.K.". It is a fitting way to end an album from an artist who, despite sometimes missing the mark, deserves credit for disregarding the boundaries that so many other hip-hop artists are hopelessly boxed into.