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POP MUSIC

Give Him Time to Regroup

Hip-hopper Wyclef Jean is blazing his own artistic path, but that doesn't mean he wants to leave the Fugees behind.

August 13, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN

"So, what do you want to know about the Fugees?"

The question from Wyclef Jean is unexpected. You'd think that the last thing the hip-hop star would want to talk about as he sits in West Hollywood hotel room is his strained relationship with his old group--especially when he's in town to talk about his new solo album.

As a member of the Fugees in 1996, the Haitian native helped shape what is not only the biggest-selling hip-hop album ever (an estimated 17 million copies worldwide), but also one of the most acclaimed. By mixing R&B, rap and reggae and other Caribbean touches, "The Score" greatly expanded the musical boundaries of hip-hop.

Though Jean co-wrote and co-produced most of the album, Lauryn Hill, the other principal in the trio, became more famous because she was the voice on the most popular track, a remake of the 1973 Roberta Flack hit "Killing Me Softly With His Song."

To compound things, Hill's subsequent solo album, 1998's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," was a far bigger commercial and critical success than Jean's first solo album, 1997's "Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival." Some of the darker moments in "Miseducation" have even been widely interpreted as reflections on her former romantic relationship with Jean. (Hill declined to comment for this article.)

The issue of the group's future is such a widespread topic in the hip-hop world that Jean, 30, even opens his freewheeling new album, "The Ecleftic--2 Sides II a Book," with a skit about it.

In the sketch, he plays the new album for some Sony Music Entertainment executives, including Thomas D. Mottola, the company's high-profile chairman and chief executive. Mottola is delighted at first to see Jean, but then is disappointed when he realizes the album is a solo project.

"What's this 'ecleftic' stuff?" the Mottola character growls. "You gotta get in touch with your group. . . . Call me back when you've got another Fugees record."

Jean follows that skit with a mocking song that also explores the Fugees hoopla: "All I hear is Fugee this/Fugee that/Where Fugee at."

In the hotel room, an upbeat Jean explains his eagerness to discuss the Fugees.

"Well, why not talk about it?" he says. "I knew that people were going to ask me about the Fugees anyway, so I decided to have fun with it on the album. But I also wanted to create this positive vibe toward Lauryn and Pras [Prakazrel Michel, the third member of the group]. I want them to hear the song and for them to give me a call so that we can start getting back together.

"I believe the Fugees are like the Lakers. I believe Shaq and Kobe Bryant may argue a lot, but when it's time to play basketball, they definitely go out and play as a team. I'm a positive person. The communication isn't good between us now, but I think the [reunion] will eventually happen."

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Taking the offensive about the Fugees is an entertaining and attention-getting tactic, but it's also a dangerous one. It could reinforce the notion that what the pop world really wants is another Fugees album--and that Jean on his own isn't all that rewarding a musician.

He even comes close to fueling that argument when he talks about the richness of the Fugees' music.

"If you look at the kind of records that Lauryn makes and I make, they are different. Lauryn [writes and produces] 'A Rose Is Still a Rose' for Aretha Franklin. I do 'Maria Maria' for Carlos Santana. She is coming from a soul point of view. I'm coming from a Caribbean point of view, mixed with a soul point of view. When you mix those two fusions, you've got something unique. You've got the Fugees."

Jean is able to talk about the Fugees because he is confident of his own abilities. Even without the Fugees, his accomplishments over the last three years are remarkable--a mix of entertainment and message that is both inviting and touching.

Jean sang at a memorial service last year for John F. Kennedy Jr., and he stole the show at a Johnny Cash tribute concert. On record, Jean co-wrote and/or co-produced three Top 10 hits: "Maria Maria" for Santana, "My Love Is Your Love" for Whitney Houston and "Ghetto Superstar" for Pras. His own "The Carnival" contained a dazzling mix of musical flavors that expanded on the multicultural elements of "The Score."

"Wyclef is the whole package," says Will Botwin, vice president and general manager of the musician's label, Columbia Records. "He is irreverent, funny, entertaining, serious. He's someone with staying power, someone who is consistently growing and challenging himself and his audience."

The new album, due in stores Aug. 22, is a bit more hip-hop-minded than "The Carnival," but is still a wildly eclectic affair that includes such guest vocalists as country veteran Kenny Rogers, pro wrestler the Rock, Mary J. Blige and Houston.

The Rock is included in the lively "It Doesn't Matter" to catch the ear of the young wrestling audience, and he seems clumsy in a song that attacks the materialism of the rap world.

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