Wyclef Jean

On 2000's The Ecleftic, former Fugee CEO Wyclef Jean consistently pushed listeners' definition of elemental hip-hop, going to such lengths as crushing Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" into Pharaoh Monch's "Simon Says" for Clef's own version of a dub plate. On his new release, Masquerade, he pulls out even more tricks, teasing hip-hop out of the most impossible sources.

Thematically, Masquerade is Wyclef's first Western movie, with (surprise!) housing projects, inner-city streets and the cutthroat music industry standing in for the untamed landscape of the American West. On "PJ's," Wyclef takes a slow trip through the projects, declaring that "everyone wants to be a cowboy" over rattlesnake accents and lonely strains of Spanish guitar. The title track has Clef storming the industry backed by a posse that includes Bumpy Knuckles and members of M.O.P. Even Bob Dylan's classic Western tale, "Knockin on Heaven's Door," is re-imagined on Masquerade, with its locale shifted to American streets.

In the past, Wyclef has deftly handled classic rock ("Wish You Were Here") and disco ("Stayin' Alive"), spinning them (respectively) into excellent reggae and rap tracks. He performs similar feats here--for instance, the ace "Thug Like Me," which has more in common with Joni Mitchell than with Jermaine Dupri; and "Pussycat," a dub mix of Tom Jones' geriatric panty-wetter. However, there are at least as many instances where his sense of eclecticism feels scattershot, such as "What a Night," Wyclef's unforgivably square interpolation of the drunken-sorority-sister classic. Elsewhere, he trusts his average lyrical skills or fascination with guitar over his strong production skills, and the results are flat. In contrast to his emotionally stirring "Gone Till November," "No More War" and the eulogy "Daddy" suffer from stiffness and cliché.

While Masquerade definitely advances his musical curiosity, the same can't be said for Wyclef's passion or creativity.