Wyclef Jean

Wyclef Jean's The Carnival, released in 1997, established the multifaceted entertainer as a bona fide force, boasting a sound both cultural and street-smart, hard-core and kid-friendly. Needless to say, expectations are high for his follow-up, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book. This is Jean's attempt to prove he can hold his own with the best MCs while pulling in new fans with his skillful blend of rock, reggae, pop, R&B and even -- believe it -- country.

Jean goes on an adventure of sorts, offering up gritty Southern flavors ("Thug Angels") and the old-school underground sound of New York ("Pullin' Me In"). And in what has to be one of the oddest yet coolest cameos of all time, Kenny Rogers lends his trademark croon to "Kenny Rogers -- Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate."

What separates Jean -- and makes him so likable -- is the fact there aren't any parental advisory stickers on The Ecleftic. The artist is proud of his no-violence, minimal-cursing, love-everyone message. Even when he disses former protégé Canibus ("However You Want It"), Jean does so only on lyrical, artistic grounds.

And like every other rapper, Jean brings in his share of guest artists. "It Doesn't Matter" features WWF's The Rock. Other notable guests include soul goddess Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind & Fire, newcomers The Product G&B, and kid sister Melky Sedeck.

The Ecleftic is a brilliant multicultural collection, but perhaps it lacks the punch of The Carnival. The latter had folks bobbing their heads to the heavy-on-the-hip-hop beats, while the former makes people stop and marvel at the technical mastery. Entertaining as The Ecleftic is, you have to search for the visceral impact.

The Ecleftic is not the classic many might have expected, but it is a disc that deserves attention. It's also a refreshing break from mainstream hip-hop in that you won't hear about how many people Jean has killed or what he thinks of gold-digging women. It is, in short, a raw, commendable effort that will keep Wyclef Jean on the map as a solo artist.

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Jake McKim