Wyclef Jean Reveals How Young Thug Inspired 'The Carnival III' and Got Him Reaching for a New Generation of Fans

Wyclef Jean Reveals How Young Thug Inspired 'The Carnival III' and Got Him Reaching for a New Generation of Fans
Photo: Karl Ferguson
The recent Young Thug song — appropriately named "Wyclef Jean" — gave the real Wyclef Jean, a 20-plus-year industry veteran, the inspiration he needed to create a new album. "It basically gave me a second wind to reintroduce myself, again, with a new generation," the Haitian-born rapper-singer-producer tells Exclaim!
Young Thug, of course, named a track on his mixtape Jeffrey, "Wyclef Jean." The two musicians would later team up to record the Caribbean-inspired "I Swear," the third single off Jean's J'Ouvert EP, released earlier this year.
Encouraged by the response, he decided to develop The Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, that would blend his old-school sound with the new-era sensibilities.
The new project coincides with the 20th anniversary of Jean's critically acclaimed debut The Carnival. Much like that 1997 solo effort and 2007 sophomore release Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, Jean, who spent his formative years growing up in Newark, NJ, is focused on depicting the life of being lost and found in a strange land that is now home. This whole album, and what makes it special according to Jean, is listening to new sounds with older sounds like new song "Fela Kuti."
Jean worked with younger producers — including emerging South Carolina producer Supah Mario — with a focus on delivering socially conscious tracks such as  "What Happened To Love" and the just-released "Borrowed Time," which samples the otherworldly sounds of the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.
It's like when producer Teddy Riley got with Michael Jackson, he notes.
"The formula is what happens when you cross the '90s generation with the millennial generation," Jean says. "Put the sonics together, you know what I mean? When you cross generations, the sonics are just going to be mind-boggling, because you're going with the pulse of the new generation, yet still being yourself."
At this stage into his decades-long career, it's about keeping things moving forward but with an eye to the past as well.
"I'm living in real time, so I don't have time to think about that. I'm enjoying too much of life right now." That includes his daughter, who has given him a renewed focus on loving life and on ensuring that he leaves a legacy behind for his family.
When DJ Khaled calls me and asks for permission to sample "Maria, Maria," it's trippy to me. When we were coming up with the Fugees and did "Killing Me Softly," first thing I said was that I'd never let no one make that much money over me; I've got to create my own songs. So, 20 years later, people are sampling my music, it's mind-boggling dude."
Speaking of the Fugees and old crewmates Pras Michel and, of course, Lauryn Hill, Jean says that even then — making hit records like 1996 classic The Score — he was thinking about creating something that "explodes the universe in a positive way."
"But you're never thinking about the magnitude of it all at the time," he says. "You just feel like, when you're at a young age, that you can change the world. You feel you're unstoppable and you do things that are different."
Fugees was short for refugees, of course, it was able creating the present and the future at the same time during those years, he notes. "This is how you become immortal, when generations keep finding you. The relevance of the work is what keeps me moving forward. That's what's most important."
Thank God that I'm at the position I'm in right now, he says, adding that the making it in today's industry is so much harder for emerging artists.
It's a streaming generation right now, where you can have 100,000-plus video views in a couple of days, or a million listens on streaming sites. If it were the '90s it would be about one million singles on 45 right now, he explains.
"At the end of the day, I define success by the reach. For me, once my daughter is singing the record, that's success because you've reinvented yourself to an entire generation. So success isn't defined by me, it's defined by a new generation."
But it's not about trying to adapt to the kids if you're an icon. "Once you do that, it's over for you," he says, adding that the generation have to come and find you not by doing hits, but by doing "cultural phenomena."
"So when today's generation is listening, they are listening to Uncle Clef. It's a good time for me to jump into the ocean right now."
The Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee comes out September 15 on Sony.