"I'm back from hell's fire." Wyclef Jean is describing the inspiration behind April Showers, the recently released, first-ever free Internet mixtape from the multi-talented hip-hop icon. "I made the transition from musician to statesman to musician – April Showers is the journey back." He starts laughing, adding, "How many people can say they did that?"
The hellfire the erstwhile Fugee refers to is Jean's well-documented, much-ridiculed 2010 candidacy to be Haiti's president, as well as the controversy surrounding the Yéle Haiti charity he founded to aid disaster relief, which ended over accusations of misguided funds and unpaid taxes. Both the anguish of that period and Jean's eventual rise out of it percolate on songs like "Glow of a Rose" and "Mid Life Crisis."
Most strikingly, though, April Shower's sprawling 33-song track list teems with the past, present and future of Wyclef's musical existence. There's the trademark Haitian pride and Caribbean vibes and the virtuoso guitar playing he's flexed since before even the Fugees' 1996 breakthrough classic The Score (for the latter, peep "Stay on My Jimi Hendrix"). Jean's epic six-string solos also appear on his freestyle take on Jay-Z's polemical "Open Letter."
"I relate to that Jay-Z 'Obama come chill with me on the beach' shit," Jean explains. "To go through the fire trying to change legislation and policy and help move a country, it's like, 'Why do this?' At the end of the day, I'm going to be remembered for music. I have no regrets."
"Open Letter" is just one of Wyclef's commentaries on the state of hip-hop today on April Showers. He kicks fresh verses over current rap-Zeitgeist hits like Ace Hood's "Bugatti" and Chief Keef's "Sosa," while "Hope N Pray" is a full-on collaboration with Young Chop, the auteur of Chicago's "drill" sound that's powered Keef's most memorable hits, as well as bangers from Big Sean and French Montana.
"It's exciting working with the young generation – seeing what they can give me and what I give them," Jean says. "I learned what makes the drill movement tick and then put my guitar to Young Chop's beats. Hip-hop is my friend. I just didn't see her for a minute, and now I'm responding to the culture."
That's nowhere more apparent than in the parallels he draws in the song "Hip Hop," on which he calls "molly the new cocaine" and Timbaland "the original dubstep." The song's most startling line comes when Jean claims to "miss Outkast like people miss the Fugees."
"What if Outkast did get back together?" he says. "It's like how people always ask for a new Fugees album. I'm a fan, too."
The Fugees' legacy still looms large in Wyclef's persona, a fact he's unafraid to confront. He's open to speaking on former bandmate Lauryn Hill's recent spate of tax problems resulting in a jail sentence. "When I was running my candidacy, they said I owed the government $2.5 million," he says. "I just turned around and gave them their money. Lauryn, she's about art first – that joint she put out was dope. She has six kids. No one wishes harm on her. When she gets out, she'll get her stuff straight and put that past her. Everybody has tax problems – it's how you get past it. Lauryn will come back stronger." And when that happens, well, he doesn't exactly discount a Fugees reunion: "With me, the door is always open to do a Fugees record."
April Showers also reflects Wyclef's talents beyond his membership in one of hip-hop's greatest groups. One eyebrow-raising moment is an a cappella Whitney Houston dubplate which finds the late diva freestyling about soundboys.
"I'm from the sound-system culture, so everyone who comes to the studio with me, I get them to do a dubplate, like a radio drop," he explains. "I am the only person in the universe who can play a Whitney-personalized dubplate – and of course I had to shout out [Jean's and Houston's home state of] New Jersey."
He also gets fiery rhymes out of T.I. on "I Wish It Was Music," which evoke the Atlanta MC's hardest moments on the mic. "T.I. is one of the best lyricists," Jean notes. "He's through the fire, too. In that one verse, he let it all out. That's a dope letter to the streets."
Another standout moment is the assured, fluid flow he coaxes out of resident rap maniac Waka Flocka Flame on "Trap N Roll." "My track with Waka reminds you of what I do as a producer and composer," Jean says. "My favorite thing is to bring talent to a new level. That's what I did with Mya and Destiny's Child, so when I got with Waka in the studio, I wanted to show a whole different side of him. I could do a whole Waka album!"
Wyclef's return to hip-hop comes after an extended period ping-ponging across various points of pop culture, from his collaboration with Shakira on 2006's international pop mega-smash "Hips Don't Lie" to his role as a music mogul on the TV show Nashville. He's even dipped into instrument design, creating the "Gat-tar" – a guitar shaped like a machine gun.
"The idea was, coming from the 'hood, taking the gun out of kids' hands and replacing it with a guitar," Jean says. "I'm just a creative person. 'Hips Don't Lie' is the biggest airplay song of all time. That and doing TV, it all balances out. But it feels good to be making music."
According to Wyclef, April Showers has paved the way for his 10th solo album, to be called The Carnival Begins, which is set to feature a cast of hip-hop all-stars. The track "Small Town Girl" has 2 Chainz on the mic, "Back From Abu Dhabi" represents another Waka Flocka collabo, and there's possibly a Mac Miller-assisted joint in the chamber, too.
"I've got 25 original new songs," he says. As suggested by the title, The Carnival Begins encompasses something of an origin story.
"It's like a Batman movie – back to the hunger," Jean explains. "That's my mindset. I've got no regrets to what's gotten me to this point; I'm a public record. I'll Google Gandhi, Nat Turner, Bobby Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela, and I realize I didn't go through shit – they did. What don't kill you make you stronger."