Wyclef Jean doesn’t speak in the same smooth flow with which he raps. He chooses his words carefully and spits them out slowly, like he’s learned the hard way the weight they can bear.
It’s a different version of the Haitian-American man who rose to fame in the mid-1990s with the legendary hip-hop trio the Fugees. Now 42, he’s older, wiser and a little less cocksure. On Thursday, he sat down with NPR’s Michel Martin at Sixth & I Synagogue to talk about why.
Many of the reasons are outlined in “Purpose,” Jean’s new memoir that caused a bit of a stir when it hit shelves on Tuesday. In it, he delves deeply into his fiery affair with fellow Fugee Lauryn Hill that occurred while he was married. (He’s still married.)
Early reviews have criticized the book for relying too heavily on his relationship with Hill, but Jean is unapologetic. The way he sees it, this was a chance to tell his story right, “before someone else could tell it wrong.” He explains his distant relationship with his father, a pastor who saw rap as the “devil’s music” and kicked Jean out of the house when he was a teenager. He sheds light on his still-broken ties with Pras Michel, the third Fugee, who blames Jean for the group’s collapse.
And then there’s Haiti, which is where things really get complicated. In January 2010, a few days after the devastating earthquake, Jean came under fire for reports of mismanagement with his charity, Yele Haiti Foundation. Later that year, his Haitian presidential bid was rejected because of residence requirements in the country’s constitution. Death threats soon followed and Jean went into hiding, but always maintained that the foundation’s books are transparent.
Thursday, though, he seemed to have moved past all that. Although he said he’ll continue to fiercely support Haiti (a cause he championed long before the quake), it won’t be through political office. He confirmed that a solo album is in the works, but a Fugees reunion is unlikely. And while he admitted he had a serious love for Hill, it was fleeting; fame, money and a child that turned out not to be his, but Rohan Marley’s (son of Bob), separated the two — and killed the Fugees — for good.
But everything’s going to be all right, he said. He has a “truer love” with his wife, Claudinette, and calls himself a reformed man.
Martin pressed him: Would the music have been as good if the affair hadn’t happened?
No, he said in his own roundabout way. “It ... would have been impossible.”
This is why Hill is such a critical piece of Jean’s puzzle, and why her space in “Purpose” is justified. He largely credits the success of “The Score” — the Fugees’ 1997 album that sold 17 million copies — to the spell he and Hill were under while recording it. The disastrous end result was simply “the price we had to pay,” he said.
A few minutes later, Martin left the stage and Jean picked up his guitar. His voice, as crackling and creamy and pure as it was two decades ago, slid into the microphone like warm wine.
“No woman, no cry,” he sang.