Breaking through the masquerade

Wyclef Jean is in a reflective mood. The normally jovial, effervescent rapper seems subdued as he relaxes in his London hotel, settling down to face a day of media interrogation.

Wyclef Jean is in a reflective mood. The normally jovial, effervescent rapper seems subdued as he relaxes in his London hotel, settling down to face a day of media interrogation.

It might be to do with the late night he had, working with Tom Jones on the Welsh legend's latest album. Or it might be to do with having to spend the day discussing the subject matter of his new album Masquerade, the lyrics of which are a retrospective of his life, brought about by the sudden death of his father last year.

Despite his mood, the 29-year-old is still the consummate performer, breaking up the interview with the occasional rhyme which he seems to find an easier way to explain himself. And he's happy to talk, waxing lyrical about an album that touches on many personal issues.

"When I lost my father I felt like life was a masquerade," he says. "So this album is the story of my life, from when I was in the projects in Brooklyn to me playing at Carnegie Hall in New York with my dad there.

"There's romance as well with Two Wrongs (Don't Make A Right) then, boom, death comes. When that happens I look back at those tracks before and they look like a masquerade to me. I'm thinking 'There's got to be more to life than this'."

Jean's father Gesner died last year when a car he was fixing collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly. It was a freak accident that none of the family could have been prepared for and the suddenness of the death put things into perspective for Jean.

"It made me realise that life is really short, you never know what's going to happen," he says. "Death is very simple and quick but that's a masquerade to me. There's got to be something more to life than just death. The truth is what's on the other side, death is just a masquerade hiding that truth."

Jean has some deeply philosophical ideas which he thinks he might put into a book one day. He's always been a thinking man after being brought up by his father, who was a pastor, and his grandfather, a voodoo priest. The family lived in Haiti but while Jean's father left for New York to find them all a better life, he was left under the watch of his grandfather.

"My grandfather was deep but he didn't get on with my father," remembers Jean. "When my father left I talked to him a lot and he couldn't believe the stuff I was saying. I wanted to know everything.

"I grew up as a Nazarene because of my father but I also grew up with Muslims, Christians, Buddhists. I read everything so I'm a spiritualist but I respect every form of religion."

When he was nine, his family fled their dirt poor existence in Haiti to settle in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. Jean's album is full of tales of his time there.

"People get to know my youth and the way I came up," he says. "The album's deep and the lyrics are saying that people would have to be foolish to think that I was living in the 'hood just doing music. I was a hustler, I sold drugs but there was a voice in my head saying 'Stick with the music side, you'll be okay'. It was right because if I'd stayed on that side I'd be dead."

He's even got the wounds to prove it. Rolling up his tracksuit leg, he shows me a small mound of scar tissue on his left knee that forever reminds him of his humble past.

"I got involved in a shoot-out when I was young. I went to get my aunt's stolen pocket book. They just said to me 'Get out of here, shorty' and I said 'Shorty this' and boom boom. I lived that life so for me to hear others talking about it, it sounds corny. The 'hood knows who's real so they'll be feeling this album."

It's Jean's third solo album since the deterioration of his phenomenally successful hip hop act The Fugees. Their second album, The Score, sold 17 million around the world spawning such hits as Killing Me Softly and Ready Or Not, but internal conflict has meant Jean and fellow Fugees Lauryn Hill and Pras Michel have never followed it up.

It was an affair between Jean and Hill that started the fall-out as it led to a bitter rivalry between Jean and Rohan Marley, son of Bob and now Hill's husband. Although the affair did not cause Jean's marriage to his Haitian wife to break up, it did spell the end for The Fugees.

"I hope there's another Fugees album," says Jean, wistfully. "Fugees was great and there's a lot more potential there. The album would be tremendous. Everything we've done solo, or production wise and everything we've learnt would make a Fugee record a phenomenon.

"I look forward to it but when it'll happen I don't know. You'd better ask Lauryn. It's just catching that vibe back. If there's no friendship we can't deliver. It's taking so long because we only recently started talking again."

For now Jean is happy doing what he does best - making music. A deft producer with a keen ear for any genre, he's collaborated with a diverse range of artists. Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana, Bono, Charlotte Church and Destiny's Child have all worked with him.

His latest project is the new Tom Jones album, a match which might seem unlikely. However, Jean, who's a huge fan of Jones and samples him on Masquerade, says it's going well.

"When people work with legends, they mess up as they try and convert them," he says. "Music doesn't change, the thing that changes is the drums, the bass, the hardness, the sound.

"We've just got Tom being Tom and we're just doing what we do. We're not giving him a hardcore rap beat or anything but he's funking it up."

(Two Wrongs (Don't Make A Right) is released on June 17. Masquerade is released on July 1.)

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