Happy 20th Anniversary to Wyclef Jean’s debut album Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival featuring Refugee Allstars, originally released June 24, 1997.
The current decade has not been particularly kind to the legacy of Wyclef Jean, the formerly acclaimed rapper and producer, best known as one third of the short-lived hip-hop group, the Fugees. Once considered an innovator and dynamic personality, the mighty Wyclef has fallen on tough times. Between the subpar music, failed runs for political office, lawsuits, and scandals, I’d imagine that when he looks back at the past seven years, he’d acknowledge that many mistakes were made.
Given the current sorry state of affairs for Clef and the other members of the Fugees (which is a whole other story), it’s easy to forget that the group was on an absolute tear during the summer of 1997. Their breakout album, the multiplatinum The Score which was almost a year a half old at the time, was still flying off record store shelves and had won the Best Rap Album Grammy. Striking while the iron was hot, each member of the group (Wyclef, Lauryn Hill, and Prakazrel “Pras” Michél, Wyclef’s cousin), each set about working on solo projects. Wyclef completed his first, releasing Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee All-Stars a.k.a. The Carnival 20 years ago.
Wyclef was born in Haiti, immigrating to the United States at a young age. His family first journeyed to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn before eventually settling down in East Orange, New Jersey. He had an aptitude for music and a love for hip-hop culture, and nurtured both until he formed the Fugees with Pras and Hill in the 1990s. After largely missing with their 1994 debut album Blunted on Reality, he hit the musical and commercial home run with The Score, which ended up going six-times platinum.
Truthfully, Wyclef isn’t an outstanding rapper. He also isn’t a great singer. However, during the mid ’90s, he possessed a naturally infectious style and panache. He knew how pour every ounce of his personality into every track he recorded. And he was a damn good producer. Along with his cousin and Fugees bassist Jerry “Te Bass” Duplessis a.k.a. Jerry Wonda, he produced The Carnival. Though some speculate that Duplessis did a lot of the nuts and bolts production for the album, no one disputes that Wyclef was a helluva idea man.
The Carnival is a lengthy, sprawling, ambitious album, lasting 74 minutes and covering a lot of ground. And I mean that in both the musical and geographical sense, as Wyclef meshes hip-hop, soul, R&B, folk music, and many forms of traditional and contemporary musical styles from the Caribbean. It’s also the best album to come out of the Refugee Camp not named The Score. For those keeping, ahem, score at home: Yes, I’m saying The Carnival is a better album than The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Wyclef takes a lot of chances and goes in a lot of directions that could have potentially ended in musical disaster, but somehow the album stays on the rails and succeeds.
The framing device for The Carnival, the “trial” of Wyclef, charged with being a bad influence, is juvenile, and mostly exists to have members of the Refugee Camp do funny voices and accents. But the music in between holds up, as its creator expertly shifts from joyful to heartfelt to ridiculous and back again, while still creating a cohesive album.
Wyclef spends much of The Carnival honoring his hip-hop roots. And the album’s best moments are the straight-ahead hip-hop tracks. “Anything Can Happen” is a solid upbeat track, driven by muted horn samples and a funky guitar. Wyclef keeps things light here, yet warns his fellow emcees to never take their own success for granted, as their fortunes can change on a dime. “Fresh” is a succinct old school hip-hop throwback “duet” between Wyclef and DJ Skribble. The song serves as an extended call and response routine between the two, as Clef starts a lyrical phrase, which is then completed by Skribble. The former DJ for Young Black Teenagers, who provides all the scratches for the album, is one of The Carnival’s unheralded contributors.
“We Trying to Stay Alive” is one of those songs that seems utterly laughable on paper, but still manages to work out. Made at the height of rappers sampling well-known pop songs and turning them into radio-friendly singles, here Clef samples the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever anthem “Staying Alive,” mixing in the drums from Fred Wesley’s “Four Play” to create a silly yet danceable song. Clef, John Forte, and Pras trade verses, encouraging college students to play with their Ouija boards, celebrating “eating mangoes with attorneys” and connecting with Nynex (a now defunct New York City area telephone company). Somehow, only Wyclef and the Refugee Camp could record this song and not have it sound completely ludicrous.
Less successful, but still interesting, is the album’s second single, “Guantanamera,” his spin on the classic Cuban folk song. He’s joined first by Celia Cruz, the legendary Cuban singer who helped make the song famous internationally, as she sings back-up vocals on the chorus, and then by Hill, who delivers another high-quality verse. “Gone till November,” the album’s third single, also manages to be so over the top that it completely works. Accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, Wyclef sings from the perspective of a young drug dealer telling his girlfriend that he has to go out of state for the summer and fall to push a large amount of drugs. Again, Wyclef completely commits to the premise, making the song extremely enjoyable, albeit absurd.
Which isn’t to say The Carnival doesn’t have its share of serious material. Wyclef is very much preoccupied with street crime and its effects on the residents of the tri-state area. The album leads off with “Apocalypse,” with Wyclef rhyming over a sample from classical French singer Danielle Licari’s “Concerto Pour Une Voix.” He rhymes as an observer, driving the streets of New York and New Jersey, chronicling the urban decay that surrounds him, wondering if it signals the end of times. Both “Bubblegoose” and “Street Jeopardy” deal with the very real effects of violence and drug culture on communities throughout the country.
“Year of the Dragon,” another of the album’s best songs, covers similar themes, detailing the sense of hopelessness that’s existed in Wyclef’s past and looms in the future. Built around samples of The Police’s “Voices in My Head” and George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa,” the song also features scene-stealing verses from Hill, who reflects on growing up in New Jersey and observing street life during 1988, the previous Year of the Dragon: “As the tale gets poetic watch the streets turn magnetic / Tawana Brawley’s rape is alleged / Hang out in hooky places watch streets corners turn to oasis / Young men aspire to be Scarfaces.” Meanwhile, Wyclef observes the rampant street violence the occurs during the present and again wonders if the next Year of the Dragon (the year 2000) signifies the end of the world as we know it.
Wyclef isn’t solely introspective about street violence and the potential end of the world. With “To All the Girls,” he examines his pursuit of love throughout his life, including the end of his own marriage. The second verse on the song takes a look at the gradual dissolution of his married life, which he admits to sabotaging by cheating on his wife (there have long been loud whispers that he was indeed having an affair with Hill).
The Carnival dabbles in some straight-up soul with “Mona Lisa.” The song features the vocal stylings of the legendary Neville Brothers, in part reinterpreting the “Nappy Heads” remix, which was the Fugees’ first hit song. Meanwhile, “Gunpowder” is a slow folk rock track, consisting of just an acoustic guitar, some spare percussion, and Nyahbinghi drums. Here Wyclef assumes the role of a young man mourning the loss of his brother, shot twice in the head on the streets of Port-Au-Prince, fighting for his “country’s right.” Clef swears revenge, despite protestation from his family and the local preacher, thus continuing the never-ending cycle of violence.
Throughout the album, Clef does a healthy amount of rapping and singing in Haitian Creole, which he grew up speaking. These songs (which I’m now, two decades later, able to understand due to the miracle that is Google Translate) all touch upon issues important to Haitian culture and speak strongly to Wyclef’s identity as a young Haitian man. The first half of the album ends with “Sang Fezi,” a straight-ahead Haitian braggadoccio rap track. Wyclef muses about walking the streets of Flatbush (a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large Haitian population) “without a gun,” interacting with shady cops and shouting out fellow members of the Haitian community. The song is set to a reinterpreted melody of the traditional folk song “House of the Rising Sun,” and features a stunning singing solo by Hill to finish the song.
The final portion of The Carnival features three more songs sung in Haitian Creole, each speaking to the unique Haitian immigrant experience. “Jaspora” is a Haitian pride anthem, where Clef beseeches second-generation Haitians born outside of their country not to shun Haitian immigrants and fellow members of the Diaspora. He encourages all to learn about figures like Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, imploring his fellow Haitians living in North America to celebrate and love their culture.
The melancholy “Yelé” is a spiritual hymn/folk song where Clef again contemplates the violence that occurs in his native country and here in the United States. The album closes with the title track, an upbeat party song influenced by Caribbean zouk and compas styles of music. The song features the talents of Jocelyne Béroard and Jacob Desvarieux (both members of the French band Kassav’), as well as Haitian music pioneer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. It brings the album to a close on a positive note, and rounds out a truly unique stretch of music for a largely hip-hop album.
Sadly, The Carnival would be the last great musical endeavor that Wyclef was involved in. The album went double platinum, but it was the last musical and commercial success that he enjoyed. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between his conceit and the quality of his music. Wyclef became a musical ouroboros, musically crawling up his own ass.
Things went sideways for the Fugees as well, as the group soon broke up due to infighting and personality clashes. In the summer of 1998, Lauryn Hill notably released the acclaimed Miseducation album, which had her on top of the musical world, before seemingly losing her mind. Soon thereafter, Pras released a forgettably atrocious solo album (Ghetto Superstar) before fading into oblivion. The group reunited in 2004 for comedian Dave Chapelle’s Block Party film/performance, and then decided to reunite to finally record a follow-up to The Score. However, after recording one song, the bland “Take It Easy,” all three members figured out that they were never going to be able to work with each other again. It was the nail in their collaborative coffin, so to speak, and The Fugees likely won’t be resurrected ever again.
These days Wyclef seems stuck releasing subpar music. His appearance on Young Thug’s “Kanye West” was borderline embarrassing, as are many of the tracks from J’ouvert, an EP he released earlier this year. He’s fallen into the trap that many once–celebrated ‘90s stars stumble into: in his attempts to stay relevant, he ends up sounding desperately behind the times. Transforming himself into a Future clone will not make him successful.
Outside of the realm of music, things were actually worse. First came his aborted run for President of Haiti in 2010, which ended before it started. Wyclef has stayed active in the country of his birth for years, creating the non-profit Yelé Haiti Foundation in 2001, with designs to benefit Haitians in areas of education, nutrition, and other areas of need. After the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the foundation was front-and-center in helping raise funds for disaster relief, and later that year Wyclef decided to try to parlay his success into national politics.
However, the Haitian election council ruled that since he had not lived in Haiti for five years prior to the election, he was ineligible to run. To further add to the indignity, Pras endorsed another candidate even before Clef was disqualified. As an historical side note, the aforementioned “Sweet Mickey” Martelly ended up winning the election, serving a term as President of Haiti.
Then things fell apart for his Yelé Haiti Foundation. Just months after the earthquake that had increased Yelé’s visibility, the foundation was rocked with allegations that it was operating improperly and mismanaging funds. Reports surfaced that it hadn’t filed tax returns for half of the 2000s, and that over half of the money that it spent in 2010 went towards Wyclef and his family and entourage’s personal use and travel expenses. The foundation closed its doors in 2012, and is still entangled in lawsuits. The scandal did not earn Wyclef a lot of good will.
It’s doubtful that Wyclef will reach the heights that he enjoyed during the mid-1990s or ever create an album as interesting and idiosyncratic as The Carnival again. But at least as a solo artist, he can and will be remembered for taking some big risks and flipping the right switches to craft something truly unique. That’s certainly more than Pras can say.