Wyclef Jean’s got one warped sense of humor. The sometime Fugee kicks off his second solo CD, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, with a simulated phone call to Sony Records chief Tommy Mottola. Jean rings up the boss man to tell him he’s finished his new album and would like Mottola to hear it. The exec gives him a brusque brush-off: ”Call me back when you got a Fugee record.”
You can bet it didn’t go down like that in real life. In the five years since the Fugees’ last album, The Score, at least two of the group’s members have proved their continuing worth to Sony, as artists and breadwinners. Lauryn Hill, of course, single-handedly raised the bar for hip-hop divas with her mega-wonderful solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, while the stylistically peripatetic Jean has been busy scoring films, like the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence vehicle Life, and writing hits for Santana (”Maria, Maria”) and Whitney Houston (”My Love Is Your Love”). (Pras, the odd Fugee out, released 1998’s Ghetto Supastar, a formulaic effort, but don’t dismiss him yet. Like Hill, he’s currently working on a sophomore album.)
Besides, on The Ecleftic, Jean sounds like he’s having too much of a ball refashioning himself as a new-jack renaissance man to concern himself with a Fugees reunion. Still, he can’t resist starting a little mischief. On ”Where Fugee At,” a weird cross between a dirge and a party jam, he sends a shout-out to his erstwhile partners: ”Lauryn, if you’re listening/Pras, if you’re listening/Give me a call, I’m in the lab in the Booga basement.” Given some of the tune’s other lyrics (”We used to rap/Now y’all want to get me with a bat”), however, the ”offer” might well be refused.
The album finds Jean refining his multi-culti aesthetic, crafting straight-up rock and reggae jams, creating invigorating, cliché-free rap songs, throwing disparate musical elements together at every turn (cock an ear to ”Kenny Rogers/ Pharoah Monche Dub,” which pairs the lite-radio cowboy with the gritty rapper). Even more so than he did on his admirably diverse first record, 1997’s Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring Refugee Allstars, he seems a hyperactive auteur bursting with ideas and determined to get them on tape while they’re still fresh.
Famous friends, like Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, and Earth Wind and Fire, put in appearances, but Jean’s outsize personality dominates. Perhaps the standout track on an album brimming with keepers is ”Diallo,” a moving meditation on the death of Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant mistakenly gunned down by New York City cops last year. Jean delivers poignant lyrics against a mournful reggae groove Bob Marley would have been proud to call his own: ”You said he reached, sir/But he didn’t have no piece, sir/Now he rest in peace, sir.” It could easily be the best protest song of the last decade.
The powerful ”Diallo” stands in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the album, which is characterized by Jean’s off-the-wall sense of humor — which he sometimes takes too far. ”911,” the Mary J. Blige duet, seems to have been conceived as a soul-stirring reggae torch song, yet Jean’s overwrought, silly delivery turns it into parody. And his penchant for dopey asides (”I feel like the Haitian Frank Sinatra, baby”) and goofball commentary imparts an air of burlesque throughout.
Such tendencies are especially troublesome on the rock tunes. On the Sheryl Crow-ish ”Something About Mary,” Jean boasts about his guitar skills while audaciously dropping the names of other axmen (Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Steve Vai) in whose league he erroneously imagines himself. It’s hard to tell whether he truly believes he belongs in that company, but if he does, he’s seriously deluded. Elsewhere, his countrified take on Pink Floyd’s ”Wish You Were Here” casts a sweetly spacey spell — until he torpedoes it with the off-putting couplet ”Critics, don’t mistake this for just any cover tune/I’m gonna take y’all to the dark side of the moon.” Fugee, please: Show us, don’t tell us.
Still, it’s difficult to be too hard on the guy: A big ego is, after all, perhaps the most crucial job requirement for a rapper. What Wyclef Jean must realize is that he’s bigger than that now, an innovator who is helping expand the parameters of both hip-hop and pop. Who knows? Maybe he’ll pick up some tips on humility from his buddy Santana. Right now, though, he’s digging his way out of his own pigeonhole, armed with a guitar and a restless imagination. And it’s a beautiful thing. B+