Making up is hard to do. At last week's MTV Video Music Awards, Destiny's Child (at least, what's left of them) took to the stage to present the award for the Best Male Video accompanied by an unlikely fourth, Wyclef Jean. Clef, the former Fugee turned style-mashing scene-hopper, was the man who ushered the Houston girl group through it's deal signing and first album only to split with them under questionable circumstances. On the group's debut single "No, No, No, No," it was Clef who promised to "make a little money with Destiny's Child." Earn he did, and then, poof, nowhere to be found.
The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book (Columbia)
But it's comeback time for Clef, and there's a lot of nice to be made. For a man who's made his musical career building stylistic bridges, he's spent an inordinate amount of energy burning personal ones. According to recent interviews, he's no longer on speaking terms with either of his co-Fugees, Pras and Lauryn Hill. Two years ago, Clef was accused by former Blaze magazine ed-in-chief Jesse Washington of pulling a gun to dispute a negative review of former prot駩 Canibus. Now free from his mentor's thumb, Canibus disses Clef venomously on his new album (though in all fairness, Clef disses back on his and it's not clear who of the two is more misguided). My how the times have soured. Clef's even recorded his own version of Nas' misguided power anthem "Hate Me Now." It's a message to his naysayers and enemies: Don't hate me because I'm disreputable.
Or popular. Clef's courting of the spotlight is notorious and his new album, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book, panders to the pop mainstream in ways that few rappers feel comfortable doing. Authenticity isn't much of a concern for Clef—he keeps it real through the occasional hardcore guest spot (see Big Pun's "Caribbean Connection") and by making sure his West Indies roots are well-tethered. On his first solo project, The Carnival, Clef imported sounds from south of the border and paved the way for a Latin fusion in mainstream hip-hop, even succeeding in a semi-legit attempt at the Celia Cruz classic "Guantanamera." Having already earned crossover stripes with the Fugees, making pop impact as a soloist wasn't hard, especially after positioning himself as the group's musical auteur.
And having done it once, Clef's expanded his pop comfort zone yet again. The types of fusion on The Ecleftic are numerous and diverse, and it needs to be clear, Clef's moves aren't concessionary in an artistic sense. Rather, these heavy-handed gestures further the exact statement he wants to make: Even though he's got hip-hop in his heart, he's still capable of making the most anodyne black pop on the market—and white America should come on and join the party.
Take the most blatant stab at mainstream approval, "Kenny Rogers—Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate." In the reggae style, the dub plate features artists versioning off their own tracks, and like Puffy squared, Clef brings in both of the title artists to deliver slightly altered versions of their epic hits—Monch with the club banger "Simon Says" and Rogers (who's being spoon-fed a patois lyric or two) with the melancholy hold-and-fold anthem "The Gambler." Doubtless Rogers is grateful for the career infusion, but it's Clef who really gets over, using his cred as a calling card to further ingrain himself with other musical worlds. Hell, he even closes this album with a misguided cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," a track that "responds" to a skit where redneck cops pull over Clef's tour bus and demand he play some Pink Floyd to prove he's a musician. Being able to do so is a nice statement, but it's really just an excuse for Clef to flex his crossover chops. The politics are incidental.
Here, as throughout most of the album, Clef demonstrates that he's still hip-hop's great filter, able to weave together all sorts of styles into one whole. Elsewhere, the album even contains hints of tango, reggae, hip-house and early '80s funk. By dipping toes in so many pools, Clef's looking to prove that maybe all musics can get along. But his destructive tendencies still peek out. "Where Fugees At?" takes the predictable swipes at his former bandmates, while "However You Want It" is the obligatory Canibus dis track. Elsewhere, he proudly wears the robes of the martyr, nobly bearing the animosity of haters worldwide. For Clef, carrying that weight is almost as important as ameliorating its causes, and on songs like "Pullin' Me In," in which he acts out the struggle in song, it's never clear that the side of the good is where he wants to be. If he was never bad, he'd have no territory to reclaim.