I haven't posted in awhile but all the breathless anticipation on the part of my reader(s?) is about to be allayed as I regale you with the tales of my charmed life in NYC and its many encounters with sorta-celebrities. Because of an oblique connection through my girlfriend, who used to work in the music industry, I got to go to this:
It was something called a "listening party" for the release of Wyclef Jean's new album Preacher's Son. The former Fugee has switched labels from Columbia to J records, the new label run by megalomaniacal and egomaniacal (is there any other kind?) music mogul Clive Davis (not to be confused with Clive James, whom I would have been much more excited to meet). Clef, as we in the know call him, wrote and produced the gazillion-selling Whitney Houston single "It's my love/It's your love" and the huge Santana hit "Maria Maria" for Mr. Davis, so he seems to be pushing the new Wyclef record very hard in patronage. A semi-full accounting of the Wyclef media blitz that's going on in New York right now can be found on Gothamist here. A standard, vapid Page Six-style report of the listening party, with all of the "bold-faced" names (which are the names that are in bold-faced type) can be found here. That item includes the tidbit that Tyson Beckford apparently "almost broke into fisticuffs" with Wyclef's bodyguard Beast, whom they incorrectly identify as his road manager. Like most everyone I would have thrilled to the prospect of seeing Tyson Beckford almost get pummeled, but unfortunately I missed the altercation. It also says that Tyra Banks "bum-rushed" the door. I didn't see this either but my girlfriend and my friend did see her in the lobby after the event and my girlfriend got really annoyed at the way she flipped her hair and gave her a nasty look, while thinking "skinny bitch" inside, an appropriate reaction I say. I must add the caveat though that I loved her on "America's Top Model". Whatever happened to that smart chick anyway? Elise, was that her name?
The most entertaining part of the evening was waiting for my friend on the sidewalk outside before the show started, and watching the midtown crowds of tourists react to the various bold-faced names getting out of their limos. The first bold-faced name was . . . some kind of Tibetan monk guy. He was not, I repeat not, the Dahlai Lhama himself, who of course is also in town. This still didn't stop the tourists from thinking he was. A middle aged woman shouted "It's the Dahlai Lhama!" in some sort of nasal Midwestern accent as if on cue and everyone stopped and gawked. The monk was significantly younger than the Dahlai Lhama and lead a group of about five monks out of the car. The next limo to pull up was that of Don King, who improbably seemed to have some sort of relationships with the monks. They bowed to each other shook hands, and spoke through interpreters for a good five minutes while Don took his shaved-headed, oppressed but not stressed, meditatin' not hatin' amigos through some fantabulous photo-ops. Weird perhaps, but not any weirder than the fact that the New York Sun reports that the Dahlai Lhama himself did some kind of event with Al Sharpton and Denis Kucinich a couple days later. There was another great stereotypical reaction to Don King as a massive group of picture-taking Japanese tourists straight from central casting happened by and started jabbering about "Mike-uh Taaaisohn". Many of them were bold enough to get pictures of themselves with Don King, who looked as if he could easily swallow one of them.
The next bold-faced name to step out of his limo was ol' fish mouth, Donald Trump himself. This interested me not at all but a particularly ebullient tourist accosted me and my girlfriend practically screaming "Did you just see? That was Donald Trump!" And, various other people on the sidewalk were freaking out about it too, so it must have been noteworthy somehow. At this point my friend showed up and it was time to go inside to the listening party itself so I missed the later limousine disembarkments of Dr. J, Patti Labelle, and Nipsy Russel or whoever else it was that was there.
My girlfriend's understanding of what a listening party is is that it was usually a rather small informal affair in a club, or sometimes just in the studio, with just the musicians, friends and family, record company people etc. This was not Clive's understanding. He held his listening party in a mid-sized concert hall inside the Milennium Hotel with at least a couple thousand people on hand. This was justified by the fact that Wyclef was to perform after Clive played the album, but the experience of just sitting and listening to a hip-hop/pop album in a crowded hot theater, with no visual element to the experience is rather strange. What was stranger was that he chose to begin the evening's entertainment with a long, boring, rambling, seemingly unscripted speech in which he managed to somehow include the usual denunciations of those damn kinds and their file-sharing. Finally, the 66-year-old wound down and played the lead single from the album, the only song he played while also showing the accompanying video.
Be warned, as unhip as this may brand me to be, I basically like Wyclef. I think he has considerable strengths as an artist: eclecticism and a way with pop hooks. These are marred by considerable weaknesses: self-indulgence and a penchant for doing too many covers. Hooking up with a strong-willed impresario like Clive Davis was probably a good move for Wyclef, as Clive probably pushed Clef Harder than the honchos at his previous label, forcing him to exercise more much needed discipline and creativity. When I heard that the new album was to include not a single cover I took it as an auspicious sign. My optimism turned out to be warranted. From what I heard at the listening party and subsequent performance, Preacher's Son is by far the best album of Wyclef Jean's solo career. Though it's not nearly as good as classics like The Fugees' The Score or Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's still much better than even his first couple of (good) solo records, and a damn sight better than Lauryn's current cracked-out ramblings, certainly a big improvement on last year's execrable Masquerade.
Most likely to be the breakout song was the first track played. (I don't know the name but it's the one with the video that's in light rotation on MTV now). The video has cameos from virtually everyone in hip-hop, reminding you that, though he attained near joke status the last couple of years, Wyclef Jean still has a lot of clout in that world. It's a song of wistful regret over violence, death, and drama in black music, including regret over the breakup of the Fugees, which leads to a refrain of "Black on black crime got to stop/Y'all can't blame it on hip-hop." I'd prefer a more nuanced debate over that assertion, but I don't listen to pop music for the cogent political arguments. The song got everybody's necks moving, and has an irresistible hook. It's great. Also great was getting to see Clive Davis groove behind his lectern while the song played.
Clive didn't seem to think that song would be his hit single. He's banking on the track with Missy Elliot. It's quite an achievement that they could even get her to collaborate, and her off-kilter delivery was great as always, but her rapping never quite coheres with Clef's singing. There's also a collaboration with Redman that was a bit disappointing. One song is an old-school, falsetto, Prince-like ballad, and it works just great. Another track is a disturbingly catchy piece of silliness that involves lots of metahpors drawn from the world of Health Care (sample lyric: "I'll be you chiropractor/Let me take your back and massage it" or something like that). It will probably be a huge hit, at least in the Caribbean, as Elephant Man is on the track. Another song is a collaboration with, I kid you not, Patti Labelle, and, unbelievably, it works. Clef sings some more on the nostalgia theme that seems to be his main thing these days and Patti whoops it up in her own inimitable style.
Thankfully Clive Davis only treated us to his dance exhibition throughout these and a couple other songs. Then it was time for Wyclef and his band to play the same songs again live. (No, I don't understand why they needed to play the CD at all if they were doing this anyway). Wyclef is nothing if not an engaging and likable live performer. His band is filled mostly with relatives and friends he's been playing with since he was a little kid so they're quite tight and he's got his act down to a science. Always on the first or second song he does a little "freestyle" rap which somehow references the VIP's in the audience. This shtick goes over particularly well at White House gigs and the like. This gig was no exception. He made rhymes on Donald Trump, Don King, Dr. J (the only celebrity I was actually excited to be close to) and everyone else famous or semi-famous who was in attendance. He then goes on to rap a few (canned) phrases in Spanish and Japanese and (non-canned) phrases in French, which he is fluent in as a Haitian. Cheesy? Yes, but if performed with conviction it fires up the crowd.
The new material sounded much better live than off the CD. A highlight was when Patti Labelle strode on stage in her full Patti Labelleness to break some glassware live. Another highlight was when seemingly every major star of West Indian music (Elephant Man, Wayne Wonder, Buju Bonton) joined Clef on stage. Little Haitian and Jamaican flags were passed out to the audience, everyone went crazy, the air become thick with pot smoke, and the whole place took on the feel of a Jamaican dancehall for a brief moment.
I don't have any more celebrity encounters to report, though I did get to stand close to Dr. J. for awhile on the way out. Seeing him makes me more nostalgic and cranky than the most annoying Brooklyn Dodgers fan old-timer. Look at the moral pygmies we've got in the game. Do you think the Doc, or Bird, or Magic, or MJ would be involved in any of these shenanigans? Well, do ya? Anyway, that's all I have to report. I wanted to see if the monks and Don King had an in on any of the happening after parties, but they split right away.