In 1997, after the phenomenal success of the Fugees – the hip-hop trio he founded with Lauryn Hill and Pras – Wyclef Jean released his solo debut, “The Carnival.”
Anchored by the huge single “Gone Til November,” the album was a double platinum smash in the U.S. that drew on Jean’s global influences. He followed it up with another global feel-good sequel, “The Carnival Vol. 2: Memoirs of an Immigrant,” in 2007. He’ll release Vol. 3 in September. On the eve of his concert Thursday at Neighborhood Theatre, he spoke to The Observer about the new album, the anniversary and prophetic lyrics.
Q: Other than the 10-year mark, what makes a “Carnival” record distinct from your others?
A: There’s a reason I give them the carnival name. It feels like it’s a movement, the constant culture; (it covers) the whole globe from merengue to hip-hop, and the theme stays consistent from track to track. They always feel uplifting at the very end. There’s the carnival we go to as a kid. These rides give us different experiences. Each ride isn’t supposed to be the same. Different musical rides, that’s the carnival that takes you on these journeys. Also coming from the Caribbean, part of the celebration is faith and hope in the future.
Q: How did you keep things so upbeat given concerns like immigration, racial strife, and police violence?
A: For me, music is life. It’s a celebration. Like Bob Marley or U2, I never really think of a time, place and space. I think the world is moving around and as it moves it gives us the space of vibration. The idea of doing music is always a healing mechanism.
Q: When you were on the cusp of releasing the first “Carnival” 20 years ago, since it was your debut, was there any uncertainty or forethought as to whether there’d be an audience for it?
A: Not at all. My brain doesn’t operate that way. I have the ideology of a kid that used to take a donkey to school. Once I got to the United States, I made it. There’s electricity, a school bus, there’s a library. When I was doing “The Score” – I’m like a Frankenstein – I knew what that would do. With “Carnival,” I wanted to paint a picture like Basquiat. I wasn’t thinking if it would do good or what’s the next radio song. (It was about) how can I bring the world closer through music?
Q: There’s a song about Fela Kuti on the new album. When did you first hear him?
A: I discovered Fela in high school when I was a 17-year-old jazz major.
Q: What else molded you musically at that age?
A: Bob Marley, the Police’s “Synchronicity” album, Pink Floyd “The Wall,” Run DMC, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and then I loved R&B like Marvin Gaye and Donnie Hathaway.
Q: Do you see a defining thread through all three albums?
A: What I notice through the three albums is just the growth. When you’re 20 you talk about what concerns you. When you’re 30 you try to act on it and become president of a country. In your 40s, you’re stepping into that space. It shows the growth, the chances I’m willing to take when others would be scared.
Q: On “Carnival Vol. 2” songs like “Riot” addressed global turmoil. Did you foresee things getting worse instead of better?
A: If you asked me where the lyrics are coming from, I would tell you I don’t know. The universe sends me a vibration and I translate it. I watch it through things like Nostradamus, through some of the things Tupac and Biggie predicted. I never just look at the U.S. though. We look at the world.
Q: And you remain optimistic?
A: Of course. Because the idea of where we come from – we’re born, science computes it, from atoms come cells… When we’re dismissed we turn back to dust. So why not be optimistic? The idea of birth comes from such a beautiful place. It always makes sure we’ll get back to that.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.