On Young Thug’s 2016 mixtape Jeffrey, the eccentric (and sometimes incoherent) Atlanta rapper titled the set’s island-flavored opening track “Wyclef Jean.” The rapper born Jeffrey Lamar Williams delivered his verses on the song with a similar throaty but bluesy wail as the Haitian descendant. The veteran performer, songwriter, producer, humanitarian and best-selling author took Thugger’s track as the ultimate compliment, so the musician invited Young Thug to join him on “I Swear” six months later.
“I bridge a generation gap,” says Wyclef, a three-time Grammy Award winner. “It’s like 1997 all over again. I just want to inspire the youth and the people.”
Other contemporary artists jumped on the bandwagon to revitalize Wyclef’s sound. DJ Khaled, Rihanna and Bryson Tiller’s collaboration “Wild Thoughts” samples Santana’s 1999 chart-topper “Maria Maria,” produced by Wyclef and his production partner/cousin, Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis. The single currently sits at number three on the Billboard Hot 100. The massive success of “Wild Thoughts” reminds the Fugees co-founder of the moment 21 years ago when he, Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill recorded their memorable cover of Roberta Flack’s chart-topper “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”
“Killing Me Softly” helped propel the Fugees’ sophomore (and final) LP The Score to multi-platinum sales exceeding 18 million albums worldwide. “It’s incredible and an honor,” says Wyclef, now responsible for over 100 million albums worldwide. “Now, I have to pinch myself because kids are now doing remakes of my music (laughs). That’s a beautiful thing. You couldn’t even pay for that kind of relevance.”
Being acknowledged by artists in the age of social media and digital streams, matched by Wyclef’s own nostalgia, encouraged and inspired him to record new material. The self-taught Brooklyn and East Orange, New Jersey-raised musician is releasing his eighth solo effort, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, on September 15th. Carnival III’s first two singles, the EDM-based “What Happened to Love” and the percussive “Fela Kuti,” follow the exact same global music appreciation template as Wyclef’s 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, released precisely 20 years ago.
The Carnival includes elements of hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, pop, funk, soul, doo-wop and gospel. Also certified platinum, The Carnival dropped singles like the Bee Gees-sampled “We’re Trying to Stay Alive” and the lush Top 10 ballad “Gone Till November.” Wyclef, a former presidential candidate in Haiti, cracks himself up thinking about The Knocks, the producers behind “What Happened to Love,” being only 12 years old when The Carnival was originally released.
On the other hand, the living legend appreciates whenever younger artists contribute their flavor and work ethic to his music. “Now, I’m Uncle Wyclef,” he says jokingly. “We merge the sonics. We bring the instruments. Put the live drums against the trap drums, against the organ, this guitar and the choir. The Carnival III is inspired by the new generation, so we’re trying to tell stories through the songs with a lot of themes.”
Wyclef continues to record at The Booga Bassment, the home studio where he and Duplessis have made magic happen since they were teenagers. Duplessis is three years older than Wyclef, and the pair is inseparable in terms of musical chemistry. “We’re like Sly & Robbie,” Wyclef says. “We’ve had this groove like Motown and Stax that’s an automatic creative fusion. It doesn’t matter the instrument. We’re like peanut butter and jelly, baby.”
It was at Booga Basement where Wyclef and Duplessis produced Destiny’s Child 1998 breakout single “No, No, No (Part II).” Wyclef’s contributions to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” (2006) helped it become the best-selling single of the 21st century. When the late Whitney Houston reached out for the Top 10 title track for her 1998 My Love is Your Love album, Wyclef, a preacher’s son, summoned his choir days to bring out the singer’s performance on record.
“My secret sauce is from my daddy’s church,” Wyclef reveals. “I was the one that put everything together on Sundays. Lead singers in choirs always helped to bring another approach to the music. I channeled being a fan of Whitney’s music and understanding her church background.”
Wyclef then revisits the time he worked with Mýa on both “Ghetto Supastar” and her sophomore LP, Fear of Flying (2000). “I noticed how strong of a singer she was,” he remembers, “but she just wasn’t confident yet. My swagger from the church helped her find that.”
Wyclef and Duplessis additionally wrote and produced for Michael Jackson, Queen, Leela James, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kenny Rogers, The Rock, LaBelle, Xzibit, Ja Rule, Juvenile, R. Kelly, Youssou N’Dour, Gloria Estefan, Bounty Killer, Canibus, Tom Jones, T.I., Lionel Richie, Ying Yang Twins, Simply Red, Sinead O’Connor, The Neville Brothers and Tevin Campbell.
Being profiled for the eleventh season premiere of TV One’s program Unsung along with R&B quartet Jagged Edge is a career milestone for Wyclef. The episode, which airs this Sunday, July 9th at 9pm/8pm CT, revisits his rise to fame, alludes to his former romantic and professional relationship with Hill, examines his high-profile allegiance to his homeland, Haiti, and offers a glimpse into the headlines alleging he used his nonprofit organization, Yéle Haiti, to mismanage funds for relief efforts. The show also highlights the trauma he confronted following his father’s death from a car accident and his newfound appreciation for being a family man with his wife, fashion designer Marie Claudinette, and his adopted daughter.
Wyclef doesn’t think of his Unsung profile as a “where are they now” piece, but rather a reminder to the younger generation of his contributions to pop culture, music and society. “I’m very interactive because I’m the Carnival Man,” says Wyclef. “My greatest strength is uniting people together. That’s always the strong thing, so now it just feels like the perfect time to tell that story.”
More importantly, Wyclef hopes millennials and aspiring talent can feel more empowered to chase their dreams after watching Unsung. “Whatever you feel like you can’t or couldn’t do, you should definitely feel like you can after you see the doc,” he says.
Wyclef Jean’s Five Favorite Albums of All Time: