With the prospect of a Fugees reunion apparently scuppered by Lauryn Hill's reluctance to return to the days when she made listenable records, Wyclef Jean has spent the past few years doing what most rappers do after they've released a few albums – namely, playing drug dealers, gang leaders and cab drivers in a succession of TV dramas and straight-to-video movies. But like most established rappers facing the steady decline of hip-hop, Jean needs to reposition himself – and as a singer-songwriter-producer, he's in a better position than most to do effect that change.
Hence the breadth of collaborations included on The Carnival Volume II (Memoirs of an Immigrant), which extend beyond the usual R&B crossovers to include tracks with Paul Simon, Norah Jones and System of a Down leader Serj Tankian. Tankian features on "Riot", a song of social unease that sounds closer to SOAD than The Fugees, while on "Fast Cars", Jean and Simon ponder automotive criminality. The Jones duet "Any Other Day" is less intriguing, her emollient vocal offering a creamy counterpoint to the rapper's regretful reminiscence on misfortune.
Elsewhere, the collaborations follow the standard R&B/hip-hop formula, plumbing new depths with "What About the Baby", a tedious domestic-drama duet with Mary J Blige. The single "Sweetest Girl" – sadly, not the Scritti Politti song – is better, with Jean, Akon and Lil Wayne recycling another famous rap refrain over a pleasing blend of soothing chorale and sprightly guitar.
But the best tracks are those on which Jean stretches his musical parameters, without losing his grip on the humanitarian concerns upon which his success was built. With "Bollywood to Hollywood (Immigration)", he returns to refugees, racism and slavery, with an ambitious arrangement in which backward strings and polyglot chanting are borne by a fierce dhol drum tattoo; and "Welcome to the East" features Jean's version of a Middle Eastern groove, for a song that could be about either gang warfare, or GIs in Iraq.
There's an irresistible charm to "Selena", an infectious cumbia/mambo groove in a festive Basement Jaxx manner, which persists despite the rapper's ill-advised decision to add ham-fisted lead guitar to the closing stages. Taking the successes and shortcomings into account, it all adds up to Jean's most impressive work since The Ecleftic, and should enable him to be a bit pickier about his movie roles in future.
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