After an almost four year hiatus, Wyclef Jean has returned with the release of his new EP, J’ouvert. The former Fugees frontman demonstrates that despite years of musical absence, he is still conscious of the social and political issues that matter today. Always an outspoken artist and activist, Jean continues to use his music as a platform for social commentary, rhythmically broaching topics such as the American political climate, the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and gun violence. Even still, Jean is able to steer clear of completely dampening the mood of the EP, balancing these heavy, hard-hitting topics with frequent pop culture references. Amongst others, the Carters, DJ Khaled, and Harambe all receive mentions.
The 14-song EP is kicked off with the saucy track “The Ring.” Here Jean channels his inner braggadocio by reminding any detractors of his musical successes. A Grammy Award winning producer, he boasts of “leaving at the height of his career” and selling “100 million records.” While the first verse comes across as a blatant effort to callout as many hip-hop artists as possible, the second showcases Jean’s abilities as a lyricist. With a smooth flow, he utilizes clever phrasing and wordplay to rap through the alphabet letter-by-letter. Even the traditionally problematic ‘q’ and ‘x’ prove no match for Jean; by the time he reaches ‘z,’ both his lyrical talents and his alphabetizing skills are indisputable. “The Ring” proves itself a worthy opener of the EP.
Following the introductory track, the stylistic rollercoaster that is J’ouvert begins. The first half of the EP stays fairly light, alternating between bouncy bangers and toe-tapping rejoices of his native Haiti. The musical experience is exhilarating. In the track “I Swear,” Jean pairs his authentic Caribbean flair with hip-hop elements, producing the perfect dance-inducing blend. The equally as entertaining “Party Started” soon follows. Here, Jean demonstrates his music as more than an audible entity. Upon listening, the vibrant sights, sounds, and sensations of Carnival feel almost tangible. Listeners are left in a generally buoyant emotional state. However, of course, no rollercoaster lasts forever.
In the second half of the EP, Jean transitions from upbeat tracks to more somber and contemplative pieces. If the first half of the EP is a rollercoaster ride, the second is the disappointing realization that the ride has ended. This jarring return to reality occurs with the introduction of the eighth track, “Hendrix.” Jean’s most pronounced talent is his penchant for storytelling. Born in Haiti and raised in Brooklyn, he relies heavily upon his past experiences and observations to craft his musical identity. Because of Jean’s ability to channel personal experiences, his music features a rawness and authenticity that has been lost in much of the music industry. In “Hendrix,” Jean shares some of the challenges he faced growing up as a black male. He describes “funeral parlors [that make] all the change” and a cousin who “[wanted to] be El Chapo.” Serious subject matter is also discussed in songs like “Life Matters” and “If I Was President,” and persist throughout the remainder of the EP.
The sole flaw of J’ouvert lies in its lack of versatility. In terms of performance style, Jean never seems to branch out. Admittedly, only about three of the EP’s songs prove themselves distinguishable, due to the absence of any distinctively nuanced features or performance techniques. However, this is to be expected from such an experienced artist. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Jean’s solo career. Over the years, he’s had ample opportunity to experiment with his sound, and he knows what works. At this point in his career, deviance from the “Wyclef sound” seems unlikely and unnecessary. Given the uniformity of his sound, Jean is a hit or miss artist. Fans will continue to love him, while those who don’t appreciate him likely never will. Such is the inevitable consequence of finding a performance style and sticking with it. With Jean, what you see (rather, hear) is what you get for the entirety of the EP.
In Caribbean culture “J’ouvert” marks the onset of Carnival festivities, and appropriately, Wyclef fans have reason to celebrate. J’ouvert is just the first installation in what promises to be one of Jean’s most active years yet. In addition to the EP, his next full album, Carnival III: Road to Clefication is expected to hit stands early this summer.
Voice’s Choices: “The Ring,” “Party Started,” “Hendrix (Acoustic)”