On his second solo CD, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, Wyclef 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.
The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book