The music that Wyclef Jean has written, performed, and produced – both as a solo superstar and as founder and guiding member of the Fugees – has been a consistently powerful pop cultural force for over two decades. In 1996, the Fugees released their monumental album The Score, which inspired notoriously prickly rock critic Robert Christgau to write: “so beautiful and funny, its courage could make you weep.” The album, created in Wyclef’s studio in his uncle’s basement in New Jersey, hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart, spawned a trio of smash singles (including their indelible reinvention of Roberta Flack’s 1973 ballad “Killing Me Softly”), and is now certified six times platinum. But Wyclef, a child prodigy with a wealth of musical influences from jazz to classic rock to reggae, resisted the pressure to duplicate the sound and style of that masterwork. Instead, he launched himself as a producer and solo artist whose work drew from an innovative and eclectic palette that included elements of pop, country, folk, disco, Latin, and electronic music.
“I just keep moving,” he says today. “If I didn’t keep moving after The Score, y’all wouldn’t have had the biggest pop song of all time.” Wyclef is referring to Shakira’s chart-topping single “Hips Don’t Lie,” which he co-wrote and is featured on. That 2006 blockbuster climbed to No. 1 in 20 countries including the U.S. – a crowning achievement atop a nearly unprecedented run of hits that include Wyclef’s own “Gone Till November,” “Ghetto Superstar”(Pras feat. Wyclef Jean), Carlos Santana’s No. 1 single “Maria, Maria” (featuring Jean and Product G&B), and the late Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love.” “The only record that captures Whitney, her daughter [Bobbi Kristina], and Bobby Brown all on one song,” Wyclef says of it.
Wyclef has been rewarded for his creativity and adventurousness with three Grammy Awards, a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone’s special Top 50 Hip Hop Players, and the opportunity to make music with such legends as Michael Jackson, Queen, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kenny Rogers, and Tom Jones. As a solo artist, he has released six albums that have sold nearly nine million copies worldwide, including his 1997 debut The Carnival and 2000’s aptly titled The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, which even turned wrestling superstar/action hero The Rock into a pop star with the international hit single “It Doesn’t Matter.” Through it all, Wyclef kept an ear cocked for new talent. He helped launch Beyoncé’s career with Destiny’s Child’s early hit “No, No, No.”
Wyclef’s new album, the Carnival III: Road to Clefication, features contributions from Afrojack, Emeli Sandé, and multi-platinum DJ/recording artist Avicii. In fact Avicii is responsible for Wyclef’s new album’s title. “It’s a nickname he gave to me,” he explains. “We were in Stockholm recording and he said, ‘We need some ‘Clefication.’ Now when I’m in the studio with other producers from his generation, they’ll say, ‘Yo we need some ‘Clefication’ on the vocal before I swag it up.’ It’s the human application of music.”
How long can Wyclef keep it up now that he’s back at his old velocity? “The forties are the new youth of hip hop,” he says with a laugh. And while he hints that the Fugees crew are all on good terms, and he doesn’t rule out a future reunion with Lauryn Hill and Pras, right now, Wyclef is trying to reckon with his past and write a new chapter. “The music I’m making, it’s sounding like the ’90s meets 2017,” he says. “It’s very authentic and all about the vocality, making people feel and reminisce off of that sound they love but combining it with new sonics.”