Wyclef Jean, the assiduously eclectic ex-Fugees member, has gathered an all-star line-up to collaborate on eight studio album, Clefication. Though the album is still in its beginning stages, Jean has worked with superstar EDM producers Avicii and Afrojack, DJ Khaled, Emeli Sandé and emerging Bronx singer Jazzy Amra, who Clef says reminds him of former bandmate Lauryn Hill. “Dominican from the Bronx,” he explains, “but sings with that old soul.” A handful of A-list rappers are currently on his wish list.
As of now, he seems most excited about a cover of the 1977 Hall and Oates chart-topper “Rich Girl,” complete with a Pusha T guest verse and none other than Daryl Hall providing the chorus. Though the album isn’t due until next summer, he is anticipating “Rich Girl” as the first single.
“My brain thinks like Thelonious Monk when it comes to that kind of stuff,” Jean tells Rolling Stone, barefoot and poolside behind his New Jersey home. “So it’s like, yes, the white and black keys connect in the middle. You can call me country, you can call him hip-hop, you can call him EDM, but when we get into the studio, it’s just called music. So for me, definitely ‘Rich Girl’ feels good for the start.”
Jean had started the track by performing over a sample, snagging Pusha T for a cameo. “He’s like Miles Davis to me,” says Jean. “It’s like the muted horn. . . . Now when Pusha got on the record I still had a problem. The problem was the legend is alive, why am I sampling him?”
Jean says that Heads Music CEO Madeline Nelson became obsessed with getting Hall on the track, and soon the rapper was up at Daryl’s House Club in Pawling, New York for a roughly 90-minute session.
“For me, oh this is incredible,” says Jean. “I get to see Daryl Hall and do what I do best. Who’s a bigger fan than me? I’m like obsessed with them. He’s like. ‘What are you thinking?’ And I’m like ‘Wow, what am I thinking? What was you thinking when you wrote that shit?'”
“I’ll tell you,” Hall tells Rolling Stone. “It seemed like we were friends from a long time ago. It’s a very natural relationship, so it’s probably one that will continue. I’m a fan of his too. I’m an R&B singer, so I grew up in that kind of an environment, so it’s a natural extension of the kind of music that I listened to and interacted with as a child.” Though Hall does admit, “It’s not like I sit down and listen to lots and lots of rap music, no.”
Clefication will be Jean’s first album in six years, following an unsuccessful bid to run for president of Haiti. Though the hip-hop landscape has changed dramatically, Jean feels no pressure.
“With me, when I left, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to do music, I’m gonna go help my country,’ I did not leave because I was in the bottom of the charts, or it was over for me. I left when I was at the peak of my songwriting. I wrote the biggest song of all time, [Shakira’s] ‘Hips Don’t Lie.'”
Clef’s House of Music is a little one-room bunker with maroon walls, strewn with guitars. Here he’s been toying with two versions of “Rich Girl,” a “hip-hop version” with trap-centric hi-hats and heavy bass, and a funkier “crossover version” with a bhangra twinge. He’s aiming for 40 tracks to sift through for Clefication — and what’s emerged thus far ranges from a hard-grooving acoustic love song to an Avicii-assisted piece of one-man doo-wop that swells into hard house beats to a Peter Gabriel-style power ballad with 24 string players. “B-Side” is the polar opposite of the anticipated “Rich Girl” A-side, is a pure rap track that subtly references more than a dozen other records and cycles through flows like the Midwest chopper style, the lackadaisical 50 Cent sing-song and the ever-present, triplet-heavy Migos flow.
“You call it the Migos flow,” says Clef, “When I was doing it, it was called the ‘reggae speed-rap flow.'”
The track opens with Clef detailing his love of the Smack DVD series, the battle-rap discs passed hand-to-hand in the mixtape underground of the early Aughts. An avowed battle fan, he keeps up on the happenings in the current circuit, which he credits for keeping his skills sharp.
“Now why can’t I keep up with any kid?” he says. “People be like, ‘What the fuck? You was just running for president and you’ve got time to tell me the battle with Murda Mook and Solomon and this is why Solomon lost or why Daylyt has two styles.” Yeah because for me when you’re taking your time and you’re watching your movie of the month, I’m watching battle rap. There is no way I can’t go on stage and go head-to-head with anyone, because that side of the brain is very operational, but as a fan of the culture first.”
The raptastic “B-Side” had a baroque, choir-heavy, trap-centric arrangement when he first played it for Rolling Stone, but after a second playthrough, Jean decides to start fresh. He asks his engineer, Wes Edmonds, to break everything down to just a loop of MC Shan’s monumental 1986 single “The Bridge.” As the minimalist Marley Marl beat cracks, Jean starts jamming along on his white Moog Voyager 10, cycling through sounds and methodically hunting for the right notes. “Let’s just keep catching vibes,” he says, poking out everything from simple prodding riffs to pyrotechnic jazz improv.
After cycling through synth sweeps, Terry Riley-esque apeggios and “Funky Worm” squiggles he suddenly has a guitar idea and Edmonds scrambles over to tune one. “I just gotta get it all out,” Jean says. “I make engineers crazy.” He lays down a track of fake talkbox (Jean sings gibberish like he’s having a very bluesy stroke, and Edmonds distorts it). He adds some Morricone-styled guitar and track rapidly morphs from Queens hard-rock spitfest to a minor-keyed folk song. A new mood warrants new lyrics, and Jean begins pacing the room — some lines just pop up, other sentences are agonized over, some need Google to fact-check. (“Yo, did Pookie wear the wire in New Jack?” he calls out to the room.) But all of them have the familiar lilt of the Fugee who always seems to stay on his own path.
“I think whenever artists try to come back into music, the shit gets weird,” says Jean. “The reason why it gets weird, is because they think they need to adjust themselves to fit a standard, right? But you’re already you. If I go into the studio with Drake, Drake is going into the studio because he heard ‘Ready or Not.’ He’s expecting me to be Clef.”