Here’s something that a lot of people have probably forgotten. In 1996, a year that’s most remembered in the hip-hop community as the year Tupac Shakur was murdered, the biggest-selling hip-hop album of the year was not Pac’s All Eyez on Me, but The Score by the Fugees. Selling 7 million copies in addition to winning the Grammy for Rap Album of the Year, the album’s success was both the beginning and the end for the New Jersey trio. Fugees founder/guitarist/rapper/singer/producer Wyclef Jean found himself overshadowed by the talents (and let’s face it, the beauty and marketability) of fellow member/alleged ex-girlfriend Lauryn Hill, and within 18 months of The Score’s release, ‘Clef had released a solo album.
Although The Carnival could have been seen as a “Hey! Look at me! I’m talented, too!” move, the fact is that the album was quite accomplished. Jumping from the boom-bap of traditional hip-hop to the itchy grooves of his native Haiti, and featuring guests ranging from Celia Cruz to the Neville Brothers, it established Wyclef Jean as an exciting synthesizer of musical styles. Subsequent albums, however, sagged under their own eclecticism. Wyclef appeared a bit too heavy-handed musically and lyrically, and seemed to get more desperate commercially with each album that failed to live up to Carnival’s success.
Following an aborted Fugees reunion and a label switch (jumping back to original label Columbia Records after a one-album dalliance with Clive Davis’s J imprint), Wyclef has decided to go back to the formula that brought him his greatest success—hence The Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. Surprisingly, the album doesn’t sound anywhere near as desperate as the album title might indicate. Instead, it turns out to be a quite enjoyable fusion of hip-hop and world music. It’s politically tinged without sounding overtly didactic, and Wyclef jumps all over the musical map without once sounding over his head or desperate…
…Which is not all that different from what Wyclef has been doing his whole career, but Carnival II is much more focused and structured than most of his albums have been. As different as the songs may sound, it all sounds like the work of the same artist. It also proves once and for all that Wyclef knows how to write a song—it’s less cover and sample-centric than he’s been known to be. While Wyclef will never make any “Greatest of All Time” lists as an emcee, a singer, or a guitarist, his talents are showcased well here, even amid a Who’s Who of musical collaborators. Hey, you’ve gotta give props to a guy who can squeeze Texan rapper Chamillionaire, soul queen Mary J. Blige, jazz-pop chanteuse Norah Jones, and System of a Down’s Serj Tankian on the same album and make it all sound seamless.
For the most part, the guest artists serve a purpose: they’re present as flavor enhancers, not as commercial success safeguards. Chamillionaire jumps on the Indian-flavored “Hollywood to Bollywood” and drops a strong enough rhyme that I’m now convinced I have to give his new album another listen. “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)” is an acoustic-flavored jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on adult contemporary radio, despite the presence of the not very “Lite” radio-friendly Akon and Lil’ Wayne. An actual adult contemporary favorite, Paul Simon (a man who also knows a thing or two when it comes to bringing international music to the masses), shows up on the melancholy “Fast Car”, and it’s one of the album’s highlights.
Wyclef also (thankfully) is as concerned with moving butts as he is with delivering a message. As soon as the album threatens to sink under the weight of too many medium-paced or slow tunes (the well-meaning but corny “Heaven’s in New York” and “Any Other Day”, featuring the lovely but painfully boring Norah Jones), it springs back to life with “Selena” and the album-closing “Touch Your Button Carnival Jam”. The former track quotes the late singer’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”, managing to be playful and danceable despite more than a passing nod to the fact that Mexicans (like Selena) are the most affected by immigration reform. The latter track starts off as international-flavored dance pop, and crosses through calypso and Brazilian music before Wyclef starts singing in Creole, finally ending with a Hendrix-ian/Santana-esque guitar solo. With a running time over 13 minutes, it’s obvious Wyclef is showing off a bit, but that doesn’t make the song any less enjoyable.
It takes a lot to be eclectic (or “Ecleftic”, as our man might say) without overextending your reach. It also takes a lot to make political points without sounding like you’re preaching to your listeners. Fortunately for us, Carnival II manages to touch points all over the musical map successfully, while also dropping science and making people dance in equal measure. It’s good to know that, after a decade in the wilderness, Wyclef Jean’s still capable of making a great album—even if he had to revisit the concept that jump-started his solo career in order to do so.