The Fugees were the very definition of a cultural phenomenon when their breakthrough album The Score took over most of 1996. Though it was a fairly traditional hip-hop album, it crossed all sorts of borders and attracted fans of rock, R&B, pop and everything in between. The singles — especially “Killing Me Softly” and “Fu-Gee-La” — turned Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Pras into internationally recognized superstars. Enthusiasm over the Fugees was intense, and Wyclef was quickly becoming a go-to guy for collaborations and production work. That’s why the fervor over his first solo album, which was released on this day in 1997, was so hardcore.
The excitement was well earned, and The Carnival (or more specifically Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival Featuring Refugee All Stars, the record’s actual full title) delivered on all levels. It took the approach of The Score and blew it open in just about every direction, augmenting a core hip-hop sound with bits of reggae, soca, folk, rock, traditional R&B, soul and disco. The Carnival also introduced the world to the extended Fugees family, including rapper/producer John Forté.
To get a sense of the crazy eclecticism of The Carnival’s sound, you need only look at the singles. “Gone Till November” was a track that brought together funky R&B flavor and acoustic folk (the video famously featured a cameo by Bob Dylan, which has to be the only time Dylan was associated with a song with a lyric like “You sucka MCs/ You got no flow”). “Guantanamera” took some traditional island music and toughened it up for the streets. But there was no greater piece of jiu-jitsu than “We Trying to Stay Alive,” which bit the bassline from the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and turned it into a savage statement of purpose. The video even borrowed from “Saturday Night Fever,” which looks sort of ridiculous now, but in ’97, ’Clef could do no wrong.