Wyclef Jean

Carnival, Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant

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Ten years after his 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, former Fugee, "Hips Don't Lie" producer, and globetrotting activist Wyclef Jean presents the sequel, subtitled Memoirs of an Immigrant and meaning it. There's a star-studded guest list, but Carnival, Vol. 2 is composed from Wyclef's personal experience and filled with his commentary on 2007's immigration crisis. He even works his own green-card story into "Selena," a lighthearted love letter to the Mexican American diva that shamelessly quotes her "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" over a light reggae beat before it morphs into a screaming loud carnival number. Many of the songs here shift genres with fascinating ease, like when the epic "Touch Your Button Carnival Jam" goes from a Black Eyed Peas-styled pop number to an intense soca workout. Then there's "Riot," a duet featuring System of a Down's Serj Tankian and dancehall dread Sizzla that utilizes a tense rock rhythm before exiting on a wet reggae beat. If it all sounds overwhelming, it's held together by Wyclef's well-crafted arrangements, and if Serj and Sizzla sound like an odd combination, try Sizzla and Minister Louis Farrakhan on violin for "Welcome to the East." Chamillionaire gets a Bollywood orchestra as a backing band, T.I.'s track is almost a hippie number, and Paul Simon croons over an R&B beat during "Fast Car," not the Tracy Chapman one but a song just as poignant. While this skillful mixing and matching of the A-list makes quite a first impression, it's the songwriting that sticks as Wyclef has upped his game. The deadbeat dad story "What About the Baby" is a convincing exchange between Wyclef and Mary J. Blige because of all the honesty written into it, and lines like "I got love for Miami all day/But if my Cubans get to stay/Why you turn my Haitians away?" add edge and weight to an album that's otherwise slick and immaculately polished. To make sure the immigration issue is always nearby, Wyclef quietly and at regular intervals references "shelter," "helping hands," and other words of refuge and protection. It's done so masterfully that it makes the couple "I'm gonna grab my guitar!" moments worth ignoring, which are the only times Wyclef's ego seems to be muscling into the mix. Otherwise, Carnival, Vol. 2 strives to give the immigration problem a face, turning those thousands of marchers seen on the news into a thousand personal stories of struggle and hope. It does so while pulsating with life and displaying an unabashed love of music that's rich, daring, and delightful.

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