"Preacher's Son is my first album," he insists. "It's the first album I've ever done where I focus on my songwriting more than anything else. That's why I call it Volume One -- because it's a movement back to music. Being a hip-hop musician, being from a reggae background and of Haitian descent, I have a lot of music in my mind. For the first time on any record, I'm going back to that music."
Even heard superficially, Preacher's Son makes this clear. Clef draws from the islands, from the streets, from faraway cultures brought close by the daily news -- from the blues and jazz and myriad strains of songs sung a thousand ways around the planet.
Listen more closely, and the words form complex, vivid pictures. Here are memories of neighborhood parties ("a barbecue, like we used to do," sings guest diva Patti LaBelle on "Celebration") and of innocent times lost ("Sometimes when I dream, that's when I wake up," Clef reveals on "Industry," "and I kind of hope the Fugees didn't break up"). Beaches, heated by the guitar of Carlos Santana, beckon in the seductive Latin vibe of "Three nights in Rio de Janeiro," while Missy Elliott kicks off the festivities in a more unlikely spot with the sizzling single, "Party to Damascus."
But days and nights can drag out long and lonely. Clef, partnering with Redman, pays homage on "Baby Daddy" to men who sacrifice to take care of kids who aren't even their own. ("It's not easy for a guy to raise kids that don't belong to him," he says. "But they love the mother of that child and so they end up loving the kids, too. We never give those guys the credit they deserve.")
And sometimes, when hopelessness sets in, so does fear and fury. Clef knows these moments too. On "Life in New York," he unfolds a desolate panorama, filled with "money, drugs, and bitches, cops, judges, snitches...jealous dudes that hate us." Yet in the opening moments of this track, as he surveys this wasteland, Clef proclaims, "It feels good to be back in New York."
"No matter what you say about New York," he shrugs, "somehow we always pull through. We can always turn a negative into a positive."
This world is nothing more than what Wyclef has always seen outside his window. His childhood back in Haiti was rich in spirit, if short on material luxuries. "I remember jumping around and dancing naked to the water, where I'd go for a swim," he says. "Lightning and thunder outside. My aunt telling me to get my a-- back in the house. It was happy. It felt free. African gods, you know what I'm saying? That's the spirit I still travel with today."
The view from his room changed when, at age nine, he and his family relocated to New York, first to the Marlborough projects in Brooklyn, later in New Jersey. Raised in a Creole community as, in fact, a preacher's son, he spoke no English at first; his impressions of urban life took on poetic twists as he processed them in both his original and emerging languages. "I got thrown into a bilingual class," he remembers. "I had twenty-four hours to learn English. Even now, my first language is Creole. That gives me a very weird style of writing."
Two events made it possible for Wyclef to achieve this goal. One was his decision to affiliate with J Records, which gave him the opportunity to work directly with label president and executive producer Clive Davis. They had joined forces before, on the Santana single "Maria Maria," and their paths had crossed as well when Wyclef wrote the title track for the Whitney Houston CD My Love is Your Love, which Davis produced. But on The Preacher's Son they were able to come together for the first time on a complete album project.
"I'd looked up to Clive for years," Wyclef says. "I always wanted to do an album with him. So when we did The Preacher's Son that was a great merge. It's the first time in my life I've had someone monitor me through a whole album. We went back and forth. We talked on the phone every day. He kept pushing me to do my best."
Davis concurs that The Preacher's Son is a watershed recording. "It's very special when an important artist tops anything he or she has ever creatively done," he says. "It was thrilling to feel the impact that comes from hot, exciting, great music that is not only cutting edge but melodically memorable as well."
With his history of working with great singers, Davis was a catalyst in bringing Wyclef's vocal talents to the fore as never before. "I sang more on this album than I ever thought I would," Wyclef says. "I paid more attention to the melodic structure. I approached each track like I was writing songs, as opposed to just writing a rhyme, so even when I'm rappin' there's a melody to it. It's rhymin' singing."
More fundamental, though, is the transformation that this album represents, of a musician already celebrated for his eclectic imagination into a more profound level of concept and execution. Though each track stands on its own, The Preacher's Son will ultimately take its place on the short list of great albums. Its maturity and insight owe much to the other event that helped Wyclef move past his earlier methods and onto something more profound.
"When my dad passed two years ago, that shifted my whole way of thinking," he says. "Right away I wanted to do my music differently. I want to do things that will change people who hear it three hundred years from now, like scriptures. The Preacher's Son is my first step in this direction. It's my resurrection."
Spoken like a true preacher's son.
--- from the official Wyclef Jean website