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When Wyclef Jean starts talking about his music, a funny thing happens.
Every time the multitalented hip-hop icon waxes enthusiastic about his various upcoming recording projects, he keeps using the word "we." As he weaves from one topic to another, it becomes a bit difficult to determine just who he's referring to: Does "we" mean the Fugees, the multiplatinum act that made Jean a star? Does it refer to his current solo-project backing group the Refugee All-Stars? Or could it be a show of solidarity with the spiritual and physical refugees of the world, for whom this Haitian immigrant often speaks? Or maybe, when he says "we," Jean is simply talking about himself. Such is the inevitable confusion when you spread yourself as thin as this workaholic does.
As we speak, Jean is not only anticipating his first-ever solo show in the Valley, he's also basking in a new round of acclaim for his six-month-old solo album, The Carnival. Recorded during the hectic days of the Fugees' 1996 world tour, the album was seamlessly stitched together from sessions in Trinidad, Haiti, Paris, New York, London and Australia. The album has popped up on many year-end "Best of '97" lists, and the latest Vibe magazine named Jean as runner-up in the Breakthrough Artist category, behind Erykah Badu. And the day before our interview, Jean received two Grammy Award nominations for the album.
"It's all good, y'know what I mean?" Jean says of the surprising nominations. "It shows that you can make music with different intentions and still get respect for it."
Jean's intentions with this album couldn't be clearer. He desperately wanted to recast himself in the eyes of the public as the musician he is, and avoid being pigeonholed as Lauryn Hill's comic foil in the Fugees' "Killing Me Softly" video. A guitar player who studied jazz, and can maneuver deftly around a variety of instruments, Jean knew he had more music in him than the Fugees could utilize. More important, he felt that the massive, unexpected success of the Fugees' The Score album could ensnare him in a platinum pit.
"We wanted to make a statement that's musical, coming from The Score and selling so many records," Jean says. "We needed an album like The Carnival that was challenging, so you could feel the credibility of the group was still there.
"When something is too acceptable, and you hear it over and over again, you start to hate it. And that's what I thought was going on with 'Killing Me Softly.' I felt when it first came out it was fresh and brilliant, but when everyone takes it and runs with it, it becomes too pop. And I didn't want to be remembered as a pop artist. I wanted to be remembered as a credible musician."
The Carnival not only establishes Jean as a credible musician, it further demonstrates the startling range of his musical tastes. He says that he grew up listening to everything "from Pink Floyd to the Doors to Grandmaster Flash to Thelonious Monk," and that list barely hints at the rainbow coalition of sounds displayed on The Carnival: mariachi trumpets playing "Make the World Go Away," snippets of the '70s R&B hit "Soul Makossa," operatic vocal flourishes, a whole-cloth sample of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," and a funky, fresh take on the Latin standard "Guantanamera," featuring a cameo from salsa queen Celia Cruz.
The album's defining moment comes with "Gone Till November," a lush but funky ballad for which Jean brought in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The implicit message of such a rich collage is that hip-hop can stretch as far as artists are willing to take it, that it can be fanciful without losing its backbone.
"With what I represent to hip-hop, there are no limits or boundaries," Jean says. "I can do a calypso song and then do a straight-up airplay song, and never lose credibility. If anybody has a problem with it, just dis me on record, and I'll be sure to retaliate."
Jean was born in Haiti, but he escaped the brutal Duvalier regime by moving with his family to Brooklyn at the age of 9. Speaking only French and Creole when he arrived, he learned the English language by listening to early rap records. Hip-hop, at its best, has always given voice to outsiders and rebels, and Jean, with his roots as a political refugee, simply goes global with the concept. On The Carnival's final two tracks--the acoustic "Yele" and the title song--he sings in French, in tribute to the friends and family members left behind in Haiti.
Jean says another Fugees album is in the works, but he seems most excited about a concept he's carrying in his head for another solo project.
"My next Wyclef mission is to get with all of the young jazz cats, like Thelonious Monk Jr., and make an instrumental album of hip-hop/jazz," he says. "All instrumental. And then my guitar will be the focal point.
"I think it's incredible, and it's another level. And it would be called 'gutter hip-hop/jazz.' Not commercial."