Wyclef Jean is the son of a preacher. He's also a self-described "scientist," and it is the mix of technology and spirit-driven artistry that has made him one of the major musical forces in hip-hop today. However far he has branched out from hard-core, straight ahead rap--and this newest offering justifies its title by featuring none other than a track made famous by country crooner Kenny Rogers to prove how far one can bend the medium--he still considers himself a pure hip-hop artist.
To those who pay attention to hip-hop with half an ear, this may come as a surprise. But anyone who remembers the pioneers, like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, who nurtured rap's hybrid roots with everything from German techno to hard rock will find "The Ecleftic" an easy, enjoyable listen. It's not just its influences that make this album eclectic, either. Wyclef alternates social commentary, political criticism, romantic pleadings, and old-school toasting, harking back to hip-hop's golden age, before so-called gangsta rap became a hip-hop staple, with its vocabulary of violence, sex, and materialism that has become the media understanding of rap.
In fact, Wyclef has a lot to say to young hip-hoppers about the soul of their music. He's clearly bothered by the aural and visual formulas of contemporary hip-hop. "That's why they brought me back into the game--to bring it right back to the essence," he exclaims on the track "Pullin' Me In." Songs like "Dirty South" and "It Doesn't Matter" (the latter featuring the World Wide Wrestling Federation star The Rock) critique hip-hop materialism, the "thug life," and the glorification of violence celebrated by MCs who, in Wyclef's words, spout "every two lines is killin' or incarceration, murderation," but in reality have never gotten closer to violence than watching it on television. For that matter, Jean's own depictions of violence have sometimes been "misinterpretated.... When I say gun, I mean my pen and papers" he explains in "Da Cypha."
In fact, while on "Low Income" Jean claims he left home at 17 because "my father was a minister and I didn't want the Marvin route" (an allusion to the shooting of Marvin Gaye by his preacher father), rappers have taken on many of the functions of preachers in the African-American community. Much of "The Ecleftic" features Jean admonishing his male fans not to assume go-go dancers are "ho's," chastising rappers who take on violent personas without having lived through violence (in "Hollywood to Hollywood"), or urging his comrades, "Don't let them pimp you like Goldie"--picking up on Chuck D's long-standing jeremiad against the "corporate pimping" of hip-hop. And in the best tradition of the Black Church, the music really does lift up the message.
His eclecticism goes too far when Jean asks us to endure Kenny Rogers' hip-hop version of "the Gambler," given to us here over a Pharoahe Monch dub plate. If Jean wants to explore where country meets rap, he could go to the blues, their mutual forebear, a connection no one in hip-hop has yet tried to assimilate into the medium's ever-growing sonic vocabulary. It's a shame, because with guest singers like Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige on the CD, Jean had the voices to pull it off. And while I enjoyed his remake of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and Earth Wind and Fire's horns and harmonies on "Runaway," these songs only go to demonstrate the limits of hip-hop production values, compared with the overwhelming power and richness of the '70s-era originals.
Jean--and hip-hop--is at his best on the CD "Diallo," which is a duet with Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour about the tragic shooting of Amadou Diallo at the hands of the New York City police. Jean sees this song as part of hip-hop's history of representing for those silenced by violence, whether at the hands of hoodlums or the police. Its plaintive and haunting feel and lyrics capture the surreality and pure aphasia that so many New Yorkers felt after his killing. When he sings "How can I survive with 41 shots by my side," you know it's not just Diallo uttering those words, but every black man from the projects of New York, where Jean lived for a time, if not in America (although his comparison of Diallo to the assassinated South African political and human rights activist Steven Biko is an unnecessary stretch).
One wonders whether we'll see police holding up their badges instead of lighters during his upcoming concert tour, as they did when Bruce Springsteen sang about Diallo during his recent tour. We may never know (how many police officers would go to a Wyclef Jean show?). Not enough, anyway. Jean's is just the kind of musical and cultural jamming "edutainment"--as KRS-One has called it--that has the unique power, as great music does, to bring all Americans a little closer together.