Sharps and Flats: wyclef jean

Topics: Paul Shirley, Academia, Haiti, Aftershock, Music,

the Fugees have never suffered unduly from what’s known as anxiety of influence. Their debut, “Blunted on Reality,” and last year’s smash, “The Score,” pulled references easily from all of pop culture: Top 40, reggae, television, religion, film and, of course, hip-hop. Fugee Wyclef Jean, born to Haitian parents who emigrated to the U.S. when he was young, continues the thread with his new “Carnival,” a collection of intricately mixed tracks that weaves traditional Caribbean music with healthy chunks of classic pop chestnuts and endless samples so fleetingly familiar, they dance right on the tip of your tongue. Topped by Jean’s vocals and those of both iconic and less-well-known guests, “Carnival” is an ambitious, astonishing and at times frustrating synthesis of the diverse cultural matter that has molded Jean in his 20-odd years.

“Carnival” is roughly divided into two sections. The first is, relatively speaking, straightforward hip-hop. The second is Wyclef’s take on contemporary and traditional French-Creole music and, though interesting and often beautiful, totals only three songs out of 24. Though it clearly isn’t an afterthought, its placement (at the end of “Carnival”) and length gives it the quality of one. Here, hip-hop dominates.

Which is not to say that Caribbean music is not a major presence on the whole of “Carnival.” Au contraire, it bleeds in through every crack. “Guantanamera” is an early example — Jean pairs powerhouse Latin-music hero Celia Cruz with newcomer Jeni Fujita to sing the Cuban classic, while Jean lays down a fighting rhythm and Lauryn Hill raps her own interpretation, talking about a woman named Guantanamera who swims the shark-filled waters of contemporary New York City. “Gunpowder” is a roots-reggae lament based on a woeful chorus sung by the I-Three’s. “Sang Fezi” bears the happy weight of Haiti’s music: Jean and Hill trade stanzas — Jean in Creole, Hill in English — as Hill, in top form, meditates on her coming of age.



As a musician, Jean’s compelled to pay tribute to the music he grew up with. But when he left the house as a youth in Brooklyn and Newark, N.J., he was bombarded with the mortar shells of American culture, and that’s what fills the remainder of “Carnival’s” references. A voracious consumer with the retention of a massive sponge, Jean has always seemed set on recording the width and breadth of all his fascinations. Thus “Carnival” features the silky disco of the Bee-Gees, nods to “The Dukes of Hazzard” and the lyrics of Sting, and shout-outs to Willie Nelson, Julio Iglesias and Fox Channel Five — as well as more standard references to the sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire and the Sugar Hill Gang (“if your girl acts up, then you take her friend”).

Non-pop sources are no mystery to Jean, either. An excellent juxtaposer, he can place the birdsong of “Concerto for One Voice” in a hip-hop context (“Apocalypse”) and conduct members of the New York Philharmonic in a rap/reggae ballad (“Gone Til November”). “Carnival’s” only real disappointment is in the lyrics. Though there are shining moments (“Til November,” “To All the Girls,” “Year of the Dragon”),mostly there’s a lot of lackluster rhyming that doesn’t stand up to the music.

In “Carnival,” Jean documents an authentic American experience, an immigrant experience, a Gen-X experience — the kind of thing that the mainstream all but ignores. Jean is a chronicler of the contemporary American scene. Funny then that as a big-name U.S. voice, he is all but alone.

Natasha Stovall is a regular contributor to Salon.

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