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Kenny Rogers is not aging well: His last good tune was recorded some 15 years ago, the lil’ gambler in his trousers has steered him into a slew of PR nightmares, and never-ending plastic surgery is making the guy look more and more like Burl Ives (which, I’m fairly certain, is not intentional). So when hiphop star—and sublimely goofy Renaissance man—Wyclef Jean, one-third of supergroup the Fugees, asked Rogers to cameo on The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, the country crooner must have wept for joy. On “Kenny Rogers-Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate,” perhaps the wildest cut on Wyclef’s sophomore solo effort, Rogers gives an earnest reading of his biggest hit—but with a thoroughly gangsta spin. The Nashville vet commences classically Kennylike—”You got to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away/Know when to run”—but then, steady through a sea of hard beats, loops, and shout-outs, gets downright thuggy—”You got to count your dub plates/Before you touch the turntable/Cause if you run out of big tunes/That means your sound is done.” Somehow, Rogers pulls it off: The track is blissfully cool, thoroughly groovin’—and you can just see Wyclef grinning wide and bobbing his dread head behind the soundboard.
Being a mad music scientist—forever thirsty for a what-the-hell smirk from listeners black, white, urban, suburban—has always been Wyclef’s bag. When the Haitian-born musician played the Tibetan Freedom Concert in D.C. a few years back, his 20-minute set was wedged between considerably longer gigs from modern rockers Radiohead and the Wallflowers. But what Wyclef lacked in playing time, he made up for in genre-scrambling song selection: One minute, he was duckwalking like Chuck; the next, he was wailing on his ax like Jimi. He pumped up, slowed down, and fucked with the Bee Gees; he summoned the soul of Bob Marley for a reggae breakdown. And every time Wyclef switched from rap to hiphop to rock to country to ska, the sold-out RFK crowd—made up mostly of sweaty white suburban teens watching their Swatches until show-closer Pearl Jam came on—went absolutely bonkers.
After finishing up a tour with his Refugee Allstars, Wyclef would go on to produce such unrelated acts as Cypress Hill, Simply Red, and Santana. He even showed up on a TV tribute to Johnny Cash. His first post-Fugees product, The Carnival, was a mind-boggling but beautiful musical affair, hampered only by bits and skits (some nonsense about Wyclef on trial for killing a soundboard) that simply wasted time before the next great track. The album, a party-platter blend of everything from disco to calypso, wasn’t just a better listen than the Fugees’ 11-million-selling The Score, it was also superior to both Pras’ Ghetto Supastar and Lauryn Hill’s Grammy-sweeping The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. (Come on: Miseducation is good, not great.)
On the much-anticipated The Ecleftic, the comedic skits are kept to a blessed minimum, giving Wyclef—here labeling himself “the Haitian Frank Sinatra”—more time to mix ‘n’ match such unlikely couples as Rogers and Monch, Earth, Wind & Fire and the Product G&B, Pink Floyd and…well, Wyclef covering Pink Floyd is weird enough. And although the new album is devoid of such pure pop bliss as The Carnival’s “Gone Till November” and “We Trying to Stay Alive” (not to mention that first album’s all-out Caribbean finale), there’s still ample evidence on the 19-track Ecleftic that Wyclef puts on a wilder hip-pop party than anyone in the biz.
On the opening cut, “Where Fugees At?,” Wyclef, rapping over a hard hiphop beat, invites Pras and Hill back to “the Booga Basement” for a jam session—while slamming record moguls for bugging him about such a reunion. This is followed by the country thuggery of Rogers and Monch’s pairing, which is then followed by the fierce ska beat of “It Doesn’t Matter,” on which Wyclef, nodding to the English Beat, allows WWF bohunk the Rock to verbally body-slam OG wannabes who boast about the Benjamins and the Bentleys. “Runaway” is old-school R&B juiced with brassy horns, a synthesized symphony, funked-up bass, and Earth, Wind & Fire harmonizing as if it were “September.” And “Perfect Gentleman,” sent out to the strip joints, is built on a blissfully cheesy Quad City dance beat and will no doubt be cranked in clubs—nekkid and otherwise—all through the winter (“Just ’cause she dances go-go/It don’t make her a ho, no/Maxine put your red shoes on/We goin’ to the disco”). Apparently, Wyclef’s “in love with a stripper, yo.”
Wyclef saves the album’s best three songs for its end. “Diallo” is a reggae protest tune infused with a serious rastaman vibration. With Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour singing backup over a sorrowful Trenchtown organ—and son-of-a-pot-smoking-preacherman Wyclef doing his best pained Marley impression—the song tells the tale of Amadou Diallo, the innocent African immigrant riddled with 41 bullets by New York City cops (“You said he reached, sir/But he didn’t have no piece, sir/But now he rest in peace, sir/In the belly of the beast, sir”). “Something About Mary”—which goes out “to anybody that was at Woodstock ’99: DMX, Limp Bizkit, Sheryl Crow”—is a grungy roots-rock paean to home-grown weed, with Wyclef’s bluesy guitar washing over the song like warm waves of THC.
And The Ecleftic’s closer is a sparse, countrified cover of “Wish You Were Here.” (“If you’re a guitar player like me, you gotta be into Pink Floyd,” Wyclef claims in the album’s PR packet.) As the album comes to a mellow close, Wyclef conjures a sweet sunset blending all of his influences: The classic-rock staple is set to a soft breakbeat, with a weepy steel-guitar line weaving through echoed rappers and some Wailer-esque harmonizing. And don’t you know Wyclef just loves it when we—and our various musical tastes—all get along. CP