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For The Record: How 'Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival' Expanded The Boundaries Of Hip-Hop
Wycleff Jean

PHOTO: Joe Raedle/Getty Staff

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For The Record: How 'Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival' Expanded The Boundaries Of Hip-Hop

Released in June 1997, 'Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival' was both distinctly of its time and revolutionary in the way it employed Caribbean musical influences. GRAMMY.com revisits Jean's solo debut in For The Record.

GRAMMYs/Jun 2, 2022 - 11:00 am

Twenty-five years ago, on the heels of one of the most successful, critically beloved hip-hop albums of all time, the Fugees shocked the world by breaking up. The fallout from the romantic relationship between Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean was too much to bear, so the trio went their own ways.

Wyclef was the first to release a solo album, Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival, only months later. Nominated for three GRAMMY awards, it was a stunningly multifaceted solo debut that was both of its time and revolutionary in the way it expanded the boundaries of hip-hop. The uniqueness of The Carnival lay in its many musical influences, almost all taken from the Caribbean. The Score had already made clear how influential Jamaican music was for The Fugees, but Wyclef’s solo debut went deeper, referencing his native Haitian and Cuban music. 

Fortuitously, The Carnival’s release dovetailed with larger musical trends in the mid-to-late 1990s, specifically the exploding popularity of "world music"— a deeply problematic term that lumped together many disparate musical traditions, but has persisted for marketing purposes. Although Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne had begun to make inroads in exposing non-Western musical genres to western audiences in the 1980s, things really took off in the 1990s. The decade saw projects such as Buena Vista Social Club (released a few months after The Carnival), which kicked off a rebirth of Western fascination with Cuban music.

The Carnival’s impressive roster of guest stars included Cuban music legend Celia Cruz, who appears on Wyclef’s remake of "Guantanamera"; the Neville Brothers on the throwback love song "Mona Lisa"; and Rita Marley and the I-Threes, singing background vocals on the roots reggae song "Gunpowder" (in which Wyclef channels Bob Marley in sound and message). The inclusion of Cuban music isn’t accidental — Haiti and Cuba have a long history of mutual cultural influence, as is evident on "Guantanamera" when Wyclef raps that his uncle used to play the song on his record player.

This hip-hop version of the quintessential Cuban song features Lauryn Hill on the last verse, outshining Wyclef and demonstrating, once again, that she was the most gifted MC of the three. She guests on five songs on The Carnival — and Pras shows up for two — indicating the album was written and recorded before their falling out. Other supporting players from The Score who show up frequently on this album are producer Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis (Wyclef’s cousin), R&B duo Melky Sedeck (made up of Wyclef’s siblings) and John Forté.

Apart from "Sang Fézi" in the middle of the album — on which Hill croons gorgeously over a sample of "House of the Rising Sun" — Wyclef saved the Haitian portion of The Carnival for the last three tracks, which are sung or rapped in Creole. The placement of these songs suggests he was worried about introducing Haitian music to an English-speaking hip-hop audience and wanted to ease them into it by making an album that relied heavily on familiar hip-hop tropes, replicating much of the production employed on The Score.   

These last three songs feel like an afterthought, appearing after the "Closing Arguments" sketch. "Jaspora," meaning "diaspora" in Creole, and "Yele" are sonically much more tied to Jamaican music, even though they’re sung in Haitian Creole; the latter (featuring Wyclef on guitar) calls to mind "Redemption Song." Thus, it’s really only the final track, "Carnival," that references French Caribbean popular music. One of the best songs on the album, it features Jocelyne Béroard of the zouk supergroup Kassav, and Haitian konpa star Sweet Mickey (Michel Martelly), who was able to parlay his musical fame into a successful presidential run in 2011. In fact, Wyclef tried to run for president in the same year as Martelly, 2010, but his bid was rejected because he didn’t meet the residency requirements in Haiti. 

Much of The Carnival conforms to the 1990s East Coast hip-hop sound, and is a sort of natural extension of The Score. This is most obvious in its reliance on a wide range of samples, as well as the many skits/interludes placed in between tracks. In addition to sampling quite a few classic old school tracks, such as Slick Rick’s "Children’s Story" on "Bubblegoose" and "Rapper’s Delight" on "To All the Girls," there are some truly inventive choices. The opening track, "Apocalypse," brilliantly employs a sample from a 1960s French classical singer, whose haunting voice soars over a dope beat. "Gone Till November" steps outside the usual bounds of hip-hop production by using an original orchestral arrangement by the New York Philharmonic. Despite its lack of samples, the production on "Anything Can Happen" stands out and the instrumentation on the chorus evokes the feeling of the Wild West.

Wyclef is a more gifted musician and producer than MC, and The Carnival is superior sonically than lyrically. That said, "To All the Girls" is an exception that sees Wyclef reflecting honestly on being a "ho"—and the way this word leads into a citation of "Rapper’s Delight" ("Ho-tel, motel, Holiday Inn") is brilliant. Reading between the lines, the song is about him cheating on his wife with Hill and not being mature enough to handle the commitment marriage entails.

Contrasting the wonderfully inventive production of "Anything Can Happen" and the realness of "To All the Girls" is the hackneyed "We Trying to Stay Alive." Borrowing a move from the Puff Daddy playbook, Wyclef samples both the chorus and the background instrumental of the Bee Gees’ hit, a lazy choice that leaves nothing to the imagination. It doesn’t help that Pras, a famously weak MC, is featured on the track. Apparently Barry Gibbs was not a fan of the song.

More egregious, however, are the interludes on "The Carnival," which haven’t aged well and rely on gratuitous ethnic stereotyping. The misogynist and ridiculously entitled "Words of Wisdom" reinforces victim-blaming, warning men off of accepting late-night booty calls because they will inevitably end in (false) accusations of rape. Of course, this wasn’t unusual in 1990s hip-hop (see Tupac and Digital Underground’s "I Get Around" and Nas’ "Dr. Knockboot"), but the skit is wholly unrelated to the songs on the album. Then there’s the orientalism bordering on racism in "Down Lo Ho," featuring a "Chinese" character who first showed up on The Score and whose accent is mocked. Even the mocking of Haitian-accented English — with the lawyer who defends Wyclef pronouncing "bulls<em></em>t" as "bishop" — feels over the top. The theme that supposedly connects all the skits — that Wyclef is unjustly accused of some unnamed crime (being a playa?) — doesn’t gel thematically with the album.

Where The Carnival excelled was in introducing new musical repertoires and sounds into hip-hop — an accomplishment Wyclef built on a few albums later, on Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101. This legacy of merging hip-hop and Caribbean music — as well as the fact that Wyclef both sang and rapped — can still be seen in contemporary hip-hop: Young Thug famously paid homage to Wyclef as one of his major influences in 2016, and one could argue that even Drake followed in his footsteps. 

Although Wyclef never duplicated the success of The Carnival, he still will always occupy a unique place in hip-hop’s history as an eclectic multi-hyphenate with a voracious appetite for diverse sounds. 

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets

GRAMMYs/Jul 26, 2018 - 11:05 pm

A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.

Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F* Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.

Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F* Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.

Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record

Alanis Morissette

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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record

Learn about the singer/songwriter's big GRAMMY night at the 38th GRAMMY Awards with her third studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 23, 2018 - 03:10 am

For a generation of music lovers, the '90s hosted a boon of hits that have now attained classic status. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is arguably at the top of the list.

Released June 13, 1995, as her third studio album, Morissette worked on the project exclusively with producer/writer Glen Ballard. She plumped the depth of raw emotion to craft the LP's 12 alt-rock tracks, marking a departure from her previous pop-centered releases.

The Canadian native's honest approach to Jagged Little Pill flipped the industry upside down. The album went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and produce three No. 1 Billboard singles: "You Oughta Know," "Hand In My Pocket" and "Ironic."

As of 2015, sales of the album surpassed 15 million copies in the United States, making it one of only three albums to reach that milestone behind Metallica's self-titled album (16.1 million) and Shania Twain's Come On Over (15.6 million).

Further solidifying its legacy, a musical stage production based on the LP will premiere in spring 2018.

Jagged Little Pill also brought Morissette her first four career GRAMMY wins at the 38th GRAMMY Awards. She took home the coveted award for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Album, while "You Oughta Know" earned Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.

"I actually accept this on behalf of anyone who's ever written a song from a very pure place, a very spiritual place," Morissette said during her Album Of The Year acceptance speech after thanking Ballard. "And there's plenty of room for a lot of artists so there's no such thing as the best."

Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition

Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition

Celebrate the Compton rapper's successful fourth album, which brought home a total of five GRAMMY wins on Music's Biggest Night

GRAMMYs/Feb 9, 2018 - 03:16 am

Kendrick Lamar's phenomenally successful fourth LP, DAMN., landed with a bang in mid-2017 that saw fans digging voraciously into the full media experience of the album's release in an intense manner.

There were rumors based on tweets, there were secret second album release theories, there were even guesses at the tracklist's double-meanings that actually turned out to be true.  Altogether, it made for a moment in pop culture that coalesced into an explicit public statement: Lamar was no longer content to merely capture the attention of hip-hop purists and music scenesters with their ears to the street; he was here to convert new listeners over from the mainstream without sacrificing the authenticity of his core sound. And along the way maybe raise a few middle fingers in the direction of his oftentimes befuddled political detractors.

"The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums," Lamar explained to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio. "That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody – and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It's all pieces of me."

Lamar's soul-bearing reaped obvious rewards at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, with DAMN. generating a total of five GRAMMY wins, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration ("LOYALTY."), Best Rap Song ("HUMBLE."), Best Rap Performance ("HUMBLE."), and Best Music Video ("HUMBLE.").

Along with its successes on Music's Biggest Night, DAMN. also proved to be a commercial windfall for Lamar, with lead single "HUMBLE." clocking in as his first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, with supporting singles "LOYALTY." And "LOVE." both charting in the Top 15. For its own part, DAMN. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA, and ended the year as the No. 1 album of any genre for 2017, by chart performance.

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ReImagined At Home: Kidd Kenn's "Old Town Road" Cover Tips Its Cowboy Hat To Lil Nas X's Country Trap Classic
Kidd Kenn

Photo: Courtesy of Kidd Kenn

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ReImagined At Home: Kidd Kenn's "Old Town Road" Cover Tips Its Cowboy Hat To Lil Nas X's Country Trap Classic

Kidd Kenn gives Lil Nas X's breakout hit "Old Town Road" a glam update by adding some of his own signature flair.

GRAMMYs/Aug 24, 2022 - 05:00 pm

Before Lil Nas X ruffled feathers by (literally) dancing with the devil in 2021, he first caused controversy with "Old Town Road." Labeled "country trap," the song sparked a fierce debate on the definition of the country genre. Yet, its instantly memorable hook — and cinematic music video — helped launch Lil Nas X into pop superstardom.

In this episode of ReImagined at Home, the song gets a fresh look from Kidd Kenn, an enigmatic, 18-year-old rapper from Chicago who shares Lil Nas X's penchant for eye-catching, forward-thinking imagery. Kenn delivers his version of "Old Town Road" while lounging in a wicker chair, seated in a light-filled room with walls decorated with book pages and a lush backdrop of vines and flowers. 

The performance lends a glamorous, feminine touch to the song, like when Kenn sings into a vanity mirror. But sonically, his interpretation is fairly faithful to the original "Old Town Road," layering smooth-as-honey vocals against rap lyrics and a sizzling trap beat.

Both Lil Nas X and Kidd Kenn broke into the scene as teens. Though the former artist is only 23 today, he's an inspiration to many in his genre, Kenn included: Nas X came out as gay early on — a fairly rare occurrence in the rap genre — and Kenn has been out since fans first got to know him.

"People in my community [are] building stuff in this game and it shows from what everybody is doing that [success] is going to happen. We're making room. We're here," Kenn commented to Red Bull, acknowledging Lil Nas X as well as Tyler, the Creator for helping destigmatize queer stories in hip hop. 

Press play on the video above to watch Kenn's interpretation of this modern-day classic, and keep checking GRAMMY.com for more episodes of ReImagined at Home. 

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