Wyclef can't silence Fugees question with latest LP

by John Kim | 11/18/03 6:00am

"Are the Fugees ever getting back together?"

Wyclef Jean must have gotten tired of this question at least five years ago, but ultimately, he only has himself to blame for the persistence of the question.

Until his solo work begins to accurately reflect the extent of his considerable talents, he will never be able to escape the shadow of the influential hip-hop supergroup to which he is inextricably linked.

At his peak, Wyclef's gifts were undeniable. He effortlessly incorporated his eclectic sensibilities into his music in order to create something markedly different from the "guns and bitches" rap of the era. His ear for the catchy hook was second-to-none, making him one of the most sought-after producers in the business.

His work, at its best, could both move you to tears and move your feet. Jean's first solo effort, "The Carnival," was an underrated gem that paid homage to his influences while exhibiting a soul that was all its own.

However, sometime between "The Carnival" and his second effort "Ecleftic," Wyclef became a bit too obsessed with the idea of being a hip-hop jack of all trades. His attempts at establishing himself as a musical Renaissance man became progressively more transparent, and the quality of his music consequently began to suffer. Wyclef's strengths as an artist were that he was genuine and that he always sounded like he was having fun.

Yet somewhere along the way, both these virtues disappeared.

He is dangerously close to becoming a gimmick. "I can do Latin! I can do political! I can do reggae! I can do hardcore!"

He's collaborated with everyone from Bono to Mary J. Blige to Tom Jones to The Rock, and all with subpar results. Basically, Wyclef wants to be some weird Bob Marley/Jimi Hendrix/L.L. Cool J hybrid, without realizing that he would be better off just being Wyclef Jean.

With this in mind, "The Preacher's Son" is easily his best album since "The Carnival." Wyclef does trot out his usual parade of guest stars, but despite this, the album lacks the schizophrenia that marred his last two albums, and this makes for a far more consistent listening experience.

At the same time, "Son" cannot be considered a true return to form because nothing in this album stands out as particularly memorable. While it is a solid effort that occasionally shows flashes of the old Clef, in the end, it still fails to completely recapture the vitality of his earlier work.

The identity issues are still well accounted for, and the first two tracks in particular are examples of this. "Industry" is a cacophonous attempt at a "message song," and it only serves to further emphasize Wyclef's bizarre "rap Messiah" complex. He was never known for his complex lyricism, and here, we get lines like, "Black on black crime needs to stop/ Y'all can't blame it on hip hop." It's a nice sentiment, but Jean is convinced of the statement's depth when the listener is not.

On the other end of the spectrum, "Party to Damascus" is obviously aimed at the dance floor crowd. Sadly, it's also garbage. Wyclef is infinitely capable of creating a club track; "We Tryin' to Stay Alive" brilliantly sampled The Bee Gees to create one of the best party jams of the 1990s.

However, instead of doing his own thing on "Damascus," Wyclef tries to emulate the popular artists of today, even going so far as to recruit Missy Elliott. What results is a track completely devoid of ingenuity that sounds like any song Missy's released in the past two years, gibberish lyrics and all.

Luckily, these first two tracks easily represent the album's low point, as "Son" significantly improves after those missteps. "Three Nights in Rio" is a fun, lively track with a heavy Latin slant that is helped tenfold by the incomparable Carlos Santana providing his trademark guitar sound.

Moreover, while Wyclef may never be the next Marley, the reggae-influenced "Who Gave the Order" and "Party by the Sea" are solid tributes to his own Caribbean upbringing.

The highlight of "Son," though, is probably "Take Me as I Am," a joyous love song that evokes serious nostalgia for the days of Motown. Shamelessly romantic and completely lacking in ulterior motive, it is the track that, in its unpretentiousness, comes closest to recapturing the Wyclef essence. It was even featured on the soundtrack to "Love, Actually" (a soundtrack that, admittedly is a better investment of your $15).

"The Preacher's Son" is, for the most part a solid effort. If nothing else, it shows that Wyclef cannot be completely discounted yet. For all his flaws as an artist, Wyclef Jean remains one of the true unique voices in hip-hop, and this is welcome in a genre that is becoming increasingly monotonous and dull as of late. It's a shame, though, that this unique voice continues to struggle in finding anything particularly compelling to say.

How are Lauryn and Pras doing anyhow?

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