For this one, Wyclef Jean says he is also Toussaint St. Jean on a new album-before-the-album. I hate the word “mixtape” used when it’s not really a mixtape in the traditional sense, but it’s a pre-album before his proper full-length. In this case, he’s calling this From The Hut, To The Projects, To The Mansion (Carnival House/RED), and while the cardboard cover makes it look indie, it is simply distributed through a Sony/Columbia subisidary. Now that we got the technical things out of the way, let’s talk about the music.
Sure, Wyclef has been bashed, ridiculed, and mocked not only for his success but for the path he has chosen to be a success, be it awful songs from Shakira or his collaborations. As I’m listening to this CD, one thing is clear: he has been doing this style of music for almost 20 years and it’s not like his many talents and musical interests have been a guarded secret. I bring this up because this CD (17 tracks total) is a amalgamation of the Wyclef of the past, meeting with the Wyclef of today, paving the way for the Wyclef of the future. He has a positive outlook, or as he says in “Warrior’s Anthem”, he feels he’s too old to be rapping at this point in his life, and yet commits himself to drop some of the best rhymes he has done in his career. He’s no longer the angry man from the days of “Boof Baf”, but he says he will not hesitate to write and make money from the royalties of a song that he writes. He’s now a sophisticated, confident, and eager Wyclef, and throughout this album he looks at his origins from the island nation of Haiti, the struggles of being a casual barefoot kid who had a birthday cake made out of dirt, to moving to the United States where he would meet up with people who would help sew the seeds towards a very promising (and positive career). He mentions how he used to do battle rhymes, and even shoots a few bullets to rappers who may talk about being a gangsta or Rastafarian, but aren’t ready to die. It’s a bold move for someone who has often been called a Haitian Bob Marley, not so much for their lyrics, but because both were/are young black men who play guitars, danced on stage while in a groove, and sing with an occasional raspy voice. If there’s something that they do both share, it was/is a love of their island nation and the people who struggle to live and survive.
Wyclef considers himself not a hustler, but a struggler, and even though he knows that he has “made it”, he knows there are still people in Haiti and around the world who continue to fight, so this is his rebel music. One of the more successful songs on this is “Slumdog Millionaire”, featuring Cyndi Lauper, who Wyclef calls Luscious Loo Loo for the album. While it may seem like an odd choice, Lauper still has one of the best voices in pop music today, and she has never stopped showing love for the street people that boosted her from obscurity to super stardom. When she sings about people from the ‘hood, it may seem odd coming from her but then you realize that she had been through some rough times of her own. “Robotic Love” has him resisting the urge to embrace Auto-Tune completely, but adds a bit of robot funk in his own way.
Wyclef works best on his own or those amongst his crew during any given times, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the tracks featuring Lil’ Kim, Eve, and Timbaland are the weaker tracks of the bunch, with the Timbaland-produced “More Bottles” sounding like a throwaway effort from both of them. Yet out of these three, the Timbaland is the best one.
As much as I wouldn’t mind hearing Lauryn Hill or Pras dropping something, Wyclef has created his own sound under his own name, and From The Hut, To The Projects, To The Mansion is a statement to his mission, which is to create good music, regardless of anyone says. He does pop well, he does soul and R&B great, and hip-hop is in his heart and soul. Even at 37, this isn’t old man hip-hop even though he claims he’s too old for this. Yet by saying this, he is perhaps hopeful that today’s hip-hop children will pave the way just as he did in the early 90’s with his uzumaki hairdo and electric guitar, managing to do something that Me Phi Me was unsuccessful at. The Fugees were once considered “alternative” just because Wyclef sported more than just a microphone on stage. He was different to most, but that didn’t mean shit to him. Almost 20 years after his initial impact, perhaps it’s time to find a different sound to hip-hop again. As I listened to this, I realized that Wyclef is a true hip-hop pioneer, and yet From The Hut, To The Projects, To The Mansion comes off as a proper album, even though it’s a pre-album. His next one will no doubt make some bold statements along with his knack for a bit of pop fluff to meet the demands of fluffy fans. Regardless, he’ll conquer them all.