Americans have a reputation for being egotistical and self-centered. It's absolutely deserved.
Case in point, we use our own system of measurement even though the rest of the world uses the Metric System. Even countries that are beefing like Pac and Biggie can agree to use the same measurement system, but here we are fucking around with inches and feet and miles. Hey, I'm just as apple pie eatin', gun shootin', and firework lovin' as the next Patriot, but I'm realizing that America is not the be all and end all of great music as Americans think.
After finding Rap Monster and having the piece blow up I realized I'm the rap game John Snow; I know nothing. If Rap Monster was out there, influencing a whole generation of Koreans, racking up millions of page views and making Strange Music popular in Asia, who else was creating amazing music that is going under-appreciated in the land of the Wayne and home of the Jay? How much incredible music was I missing out on simply because I had my red white and blue blinders on?
I love America, but I love dope music even more. If you make great music, music that connects with people regardless of language, culture, or political barriers, why wouldn't I listen? So now I'm kind of obsessed with spotlighting the best the world has to offer. If Rap Monster taught me anything it's to never judge a book by its cover, language or place of origin. So who else is out there making great music, making waves, that is going vastly underappreciated here in 'murica?
Stromae is out there...and you have to know his name.
Before we get into the music, let's go through a quick backstory. Stromae is a Belgian singer/songwriter/artist. He blew up in 2009 when his song "Alors on danse" reached number 1 in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy and (approximately) 47 billion more countries. It even made its way to North America, receiving attention in Canada, but it did not impact in the U.S. That's a microcosm for his career. Though all of his videos have (literally) millions of views, I really haven't heard his name anywhere in the U.S.
Not that he needs it, not that he is looking for it, and not that it's somehow necessary for his career, but it's fascinating to me that a guy can be this popular, this expansive, and yet is virtually unknown in the U.S. Are we really living in that big of a star-spangled bubble? An interesting personal note - and one that makes this next video even more amazing - his father was a Rwandan architect who was absent for most of his childhood and then was later killed in the '94 Rwandan genocide. Okay, now that you kind of know the deal, it's time to get to the music; it's really the best way to get to know Stro.
Even before I knew the story behind his father's life and death, I could grasp the power and meaning of "Papaoutai." Though the video will likely haunt my nightmares for the next week, I'm riveted. The only French I know comes from an episode of Dexter's Lab, but I don't need to speak the same language to grasp the message here. Sure, at first glance, the video is cool from a visual angle, it has a surreal vibe and the choreography is phenomenal, but the message is so powerful. The child in the video (perhaps a young Stromae?) grew up with a shell of a father, and eventually he becomes the very same hollow human being. That's literally the most boring, bland explanation ever, but I'm not good enough with words to capture the potency of the visuals.
So yeah, the video is pretty, the song is amazingly intricate and intoxicating, but that message is dark. It's painful. I feel it. He's able to connect with me despite speaking a completely different language. I was already hooked, but that was just the beginning. Check out the video for "ta fête."
Sweet...baby...Jesus. Goosebumps. Is this a music video or a cinematic triumph? It makes The Hunger Games look like an episode of Burn Notice. Looking at his visuals, I'm actually stunned he hasn't developed more of a following here. I think the main reason international artists struggle to breakthrough in the U.S. is due to accents and language. How many times have you heard someone say they can't get into a rapper because of the accent? Tinie Tempah had multiple number-one songs and albums in the U.K. but couldn't get even a fraction of that same buzz in America.
Well, Stromae's videos don't need any translation. They are visually stunning and complex, but they also are fun to watch. The themes and ideas in his music are perfectly reflected in the visuals and yet they aren't heavy handed; they make you think but are easily understood. His music is fucking epic - you better believe this is going on my running playlist and if I hear this in the club I'm going nuts - but his videos are next level, and they serve as a Rosetta Stone translator for his music. You may not speak French, but the visuals help you understand and appreciate the passion and heart in his voice. Honestly, I don't think there is any artist making better videos than Stromae right now (maybe Flying Lotus?), and they just keep getting better.
My absolute favorite piece of work is his most recent video, which premiered today on Buzzfeed, and for the record, it has already amassed millions of views. In the name of integrity here is the direct link, but also in the name of journalistic integrity just watch it below and don't click because Buzzfeed is the worst. Now, I realize there is some irony in the video premiering on Buzzfeed considering the subject matter of the song, but I'll chalk it up to the label and not Stromae himself. Shades of my To Pimp A Butterfly piece last week, the song is about how Twitter and social media affect our lives. As a lead-up to the video premiere, he promoted the video by doing a series of illustrated shots of selfies, food, and the other mindless dribble you find on social media. That is some serious thought and effort. Though it is beautifully illustrated by French artist and filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, the message is pretty dark but also very important.
I have to believe his astounding visuals will help his new American expedition greatly. I may not know a lot about Belgium, I don't speak French, but I do know American culture pretty well, and we definitely like to look at cool shit. If it's shiny, sleek and exciting, odds are we'll give it a chance, and Stromae's videos are definitely all three. He's not just creating visuals that are pretty and have no meaning; the beat, the lyrics, the video, they all work together to make for a cohesive, rich experience. Of course it doesn't hurt to have songs with Lorde and Pusha T from a blockbuster movie as well as a Kanye cosign, but Stromae's ability to connect on a deeper level, one that reaches deeper than words in any language, is why (and how) he will make his mark in the States.
Socially conscious pop stars don't come around often and when they do we need to celebrate them, no matter where they're from.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]