Michael Jordan. David Hasselhoff. Master P. After listening to Wyclef Jean’s latest, Masquerade, these names immediately came to my mind. Not because of their incredible talents, ambition, or success, but because of their remarkable ineptitude when venturing out of their respective comfort zones. Michael Jordan’s pitiful minor league swings, David Hasselhoff’s floundering foray into the pop music world, and Master P’s underwhelming tryouts for the Charlotte Hornets are all par for the current entertainment course on which athletes want to change sports, actors want to become singers, and rappers want to become basketball players. On Masquerade, standout producer Wyclef Jean becomes another example of this phenomenon by overplaying his creative hand and masquerading as a rapper.
Granted, rapping is not exactly new territory for Fugees alum Wyclef Jean. In fact, his previous two albums (The Carnival and Ecleftic) were accepted and critically praised as rap albums. An indispensable caveat, however, to the critical acclaim that he has received for these albums is that they are good in spite of his rudimentary rhyming ability. That he can make even reasonably strong albums with his limited MC (and singing) skills is a testament to his brilliance as a producer, song writer, and musician. In this regard, Masquerade is no different. Creative beats and wonderful musical arrangements are constantly spoiled by Wyclef’s below average flow and ridiculous thug aspirations.
On “PJ’s”, Wyclef attempts to spit hard, street friendly lyrics that seemingly miss their mark at every turn: “I’d probably be standin’ on a corner—watch you approach / Steal ya dope, sell ya coke, then snatch ya rope / Run for broke with the cash and the jewels / Bulls-eye, I hold my breath when I shoot”. Right. From a guy who makes songs with Celia Cruz, Kenny Rogers, and Tom Jones, this is too unbelievable, even for the fantasy heavy world of hip-hop.
>Masquerade is filled with disappointing remakes that simply did not need to happen. Wyclef’s hip-hop interpolation of the Four Seasons’ classic, “Oh What a Night” is uninspired and boring. On “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, Wyclef plays a brilliant guitar but does little else to add new life to a song that has already been remade too many times. “Pussycat”, an absurd hip-hop remake of the Tom Jones hit, is flat out corny and does little to support Wyclef’s dubious claims of street credibility.
The best part of Masquerade is the brilliant production and wonderful instrumentation. From start to finish, Wyclef creates sounds so fresh and daring that you find yourself wishing that there was some way to mute his vocals. The two exceptions on the album are the standout tracks “Thug Like Me” and “Two Wrongs”. On “Thug Like Me”, Wyclef, over a soulful, feel good beat, warns arrogant men about the dangers of mistreating their partners: “If you ain’t treatin’ your girlfriend right / Trust me when I tell you this / One day you won’t be missed / Someone will replace your kiss / You wanna be hardcore like the rapper Jadakiss / And a thug like me will be up in your house”. On “Two Wrongs”, a beautiful repeat of the Ecleftic hit “911”, Claudette Ortiz of City High captures all of the pain of a relationship gone south: “I can’t see the sun no more / I’m so used to the pain that the sickness feels like a cure”.
As always, Wyclef’s creativity and talent save the album from being a failure. His splendid guitar skills and knack for making strong tracks ultimately overshadow his second-rate skills on the mic. Nevertheless, without a clear theme or direction, Masquerade is the least enjoyable of Wyclef’s three albums. For the next album, hopefully Wyclef will finally decide to stick to his strengths and leave the rapping to those who are good at it, like Chris Webber.