Carnival both dazzling, nauseous
Dec. 07, 2007
Think back to your last carnival: the bright lights, the cotton candy, the funnel cakes and the Sizzler. These are the parts you remember. The parts you seem to omit from memory are the drawbacks: Sid the four-nippled carnie, copious amounts of meat on a stick and that unfortunate upchuck that just taunted you for thinking you could take one more round on the Tilt-A-Whirl. There's a reason you haven't been to carnival since Method Man was just Method Boy.
Wyclef Jean's The Carnival: Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant is essentially the musician's personal festival. There are bright lights (guest spots by everyone from T.I. to Serj Tankian to Paul Simon), high notes and glimmers of brilliance. There is even a guest rapper literally named Sizzla. Unfortunately, there are no funnel cakes. But the vomit is certainly there too.
There are two disclaimers this album should have come with. One, Wyclef Jean could not sing himself out of a paper bag. And two, this album contains failed overly conceptual themes.
Yes, this is a concept album. Clef is attempting to humanize and personify the immigrant experience in America in one album. Not just his own experience but the experience of every immigrant — each track attempts to represent a different element of that experience. Essentially, Clef is trying to achieve in 70 minutes what James Joyce might or might not have achieved in 59 years.
The most impressive part about this album is that there are moments where you are right there with Clef. A frantic guitar-heavy beat aided by a crazed-sounding Tankian creates controlled chaos on the opening "Riot" as Clef raps on the unrest in the world. A few tracks later Clef's wearisome singing voice even seems bearable and semi-soothing while backed by his moving and well-crafted lyrics on war and despair. And his banter with T.I. on "Slow Down" feels impressively natural for the intertwining of their contrasting styles.
But not all these collaborations were matches made in hip-hop heaven. The idea of Chamillionare guest-rapping on a track called "Hollywood Meets Bollywood (Immigration)," a track where Clef namedrops Harriet Tubman, is almost laughable.
Just two tracks after the T.I. collaboration, which exudes more hip-hop cred than anything Clef has done in years, he throws in a Paul Simon guest spot on "Fast Car" that feels about as hip-hop as the Republican Party. It's almost as if he's picked his guest spots out of some sort of a mysterious pop culture melting pot. These confusing guests along with the distracting and often questionable production seem to be the biggest downsides to an otherwise impressive return to form for the former Fugee.
His most radio-friendly collaboration on the album, "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)," exposes another one of the peculiarities of the album. The song itself was born for radio, but if it wasn't, the world might have turned on its axis. Putting Akon and Lil' Wayne on the same track is basically equivalent to putting Federer and Nadal on the same doubles team — there's no need to even play the matches. But the track exposes an odd belief that Clef seems to hold throughout the album. It seems to be the point in the album at which "immigrant" and "stripper" begin to be used interchangeably. And while it is possible that Clef and I frequent different types of strip clubs, sheer odds tell us there are at least a few immigrant doctors, lawyers and pastry chefs that just might prove him wrong.
Overall, the scattered moments of brilliance make the album worth the ride. But just be ready for the reeling in your stomach afterward.