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Wyclef Jean's memoir 'Purpose' is more about Lauryn Hill

Former Fugees frontman Wyclef Jean overlooks more interesting stories to devote his memoir to an old affair with bandmate Lauryn Hill.

September 19, 2012|By Gerrick D. Kennedy
  • "Purpose," by Wyclef Jean with Anthony Bozza, focuses a great deal on Fugees drama and an affair with Lauryn Hill.
"Purpose," by Wyclef Jean with Anthony Bozza, focuses a great… (It Books )

One of the most inspiring facets of hip-hop star Wyclef Jean has been his commitment to rebuilding Haiti since his homeland's devastation by an  earthquake  in 2010. And one of the more interesting things he's done is run for president of the island nation.

But his fund-raising efforts resulted in a financial scandal and his political aspirations were cut short by an unsuccessful run for office.

However, in his new autobiography, “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story” (out Tuesday), both of these compelling storylines take a backseat to a nearly 15-year-old question: What really happened to the Fugees?

In “Purpose,” co-written with music journalist Anthony Bozza, Jean devotes the majority of his time to the group that made him and Lauryn Hill superstars and that broke major ground in '90s hip-hop with the Fugees' heralded sophomore set, 1996’s “The Score.”

Based on interviews with both Jean and Hill -- before she became reclusive -- that were done after “The Score,” it’s been easy to conclude that it was the pair's torrid relationship that possibly tore the Fugees apart.

In his book, Jean expounds on it in painstaking detail, exposing intimate details of the relationship that permanently fractured the group.  

From the moment he writes of his initial meeting with the singer ("The minute I saw Lauryn Hill, I couldn't believe my eyes"), the book gets bogged down by their romance.

Not that his tales of poverty, immigration and breaking into the business aren’t fascinating, but they just aren't treated with equal heft.  

The relationship was both passionate and contentious, and Jean’s overwhelming infatuation with Hill saw him risk their big brother-little sister dynamic for romance.

To his credit, Jean tackles their relationship with blistering honesty. He was seduced by her youth (they are five years apart in age), beauty and talent. He helped her pair her hauntingly soulful voice with rhyming -- though he makes sure to mention that he taught her how to flow, before admitting that her abilities eclipsed his as a lyricist.

But as he and Hill fell into a “daring kind of love,” Jean casually slips in that he was already in love with his future wife, Claudinette (the two remain married).

The love triangle quickly becomes frustrating to read about as Jean presents himself as a man who just couldn’t help falling for both women (“I couldn’t say no to either of them”) and Hill as a volatile lover who becomes scorned after he decides to marry Claudinette yet continue his intimate relationship with her -- despite his wife telling him to choose while the three of them were riding in Hill’s car.

It’s hard not to get enveloped in the tragedy of their romance, which Jean says heavily influenced their music -- including “The Score” and their respective solo debuts. There are behind-the-scenes moments that make for a great read -- the genesis of classic "Ready or Not" and the pain of "Killing Me Softly," for instance.

The height of their affair is the hardest to digest -- and has provided the main focal point for critics of the book --  when Jean reveals that he was led to believe that Hill’s first child was his.

“I was married and Lauryn and I were having an affair, but she had led me to believe that the baby was mine, and I couldn’t forgive that," he writes. "This killed our trust in my mind, and it caused us to start drifting apart.”

The passage comes after he mentions learning about a relationship between Hill and Rohan Marley (the two have five children together). Jean can't help but mention that Rohan  also was married.

It’s one of many utterly non-self-aware moments that appear in the book. Another example -- Jean praises the Fugees' overlooked third member, Pras, but then uses his name and another under-appreciated band member, Tito Jackson, in the same sentence.

As for his charity scandal, Jean breezes through both that and the political run -- the two things that could have bookended a moving and reflective tale of the star rebuilding his homeland and himself.

Instead, Jean has written an exposé in which the reader can’t quite possibly find a single redeeming quality about its author.

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