Wyclef Jean

Masquerade (Columbia)

As co-leader of the Fugees and a wonderfully eccentric solo artist, Wyclef Jean has made a career out of disproving the orthodox notion that good hip-hop requires great flow. His third solo album follows suit, creating the illusion of casual inspiration as it meshes unlikely musical sources, from the pretty Far East flute on "Peace God" to the madcap match of Tom Jones and Jamaican dancehall on "Pussycat." Likewise, Jean's lyrics continue his project of fighting fire with fire, answering hardcore rap's amoral posturing with violent denunciations of the gangbangers' fatal masquerade.

But Jean is also caught up in the masquerade himself, homing in on standard hardcore production, from cool and dire ("80 Bars") to hot and clamoring ("Masquerade"), and standard hardcore stances, from threatening ("You Say Keep It Gangsta") to boastful ("Oh What a Night"). Until that last number, which finally helps open up this tiresome 22-cut CD, Jean shortchanges his main asset -- a tenderness far more imaginative and empathetic than anything Tupac Shakur ever demonstrated for his doomed thug-brothers. Without it, we're forced to focus on his sorely deficient skills as a verbal warrior, violating a crucial rule of combat -- never allow your enemy to choose the terrain of engagement.