The French (Hip-Hop) Revolution

France is not only the second biggest market for hip-hop, but it’s also now arguably the most prolific.
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A co-sign from Drake is commonly accepted as worth its weight in streams. In the UK, an invitation to dance with Drizzy is considered a career milestone. But when Canada’s most famous anglophile requested to remix a song by France’s most prominent rap act, he was rebuffed. PNL, an independent rap group formed in 2014 by two brothers, Tarik and Nabil Andrieu, don’t collaborate with other artists, entertain interviews or acknowledge the press. Sorry, Drake.

Despite this behavior, PNL’s reclusiveness doesn’t extend to the free market: the unsigned rappers have signed deals with Uber—to pay for rides while their album plays—and, more recently, announced their own Snapchat and Instagram filters. Their refusal to allow a remix of their ethereal “A l’Ammoniaque” bespoke not only their autonomy but a hip-hop scene that is now a self-sustaining ecosystem, accruing millions of euros annually and dominating French popular culture.

In 2018, rappers from the impoverished suburbs of Paris sold more units than their counterparts in Los Angeles over the same 12-month period. So far in 2019, French-speaking rappers have sat atop the French singles charts every week but two (see Lil Nas X), while commercial hip-hop albums are released at a rate of one per less than every 48 hours. Compare this to the much-buzzed-about UK scene, where Dave’s March album release, Psychodrama, became only the sixth British rap album ever to top the UK chart, and the lack of reporting on the success of the French rap revolution paints a picture of stark anglocentrism.

France, as the second largest producer of hip-hop music in the world, was once little more than hip-hop trivia. Now, more than a quarter of a century after MC Solaar’s appearance on Guru’s “Le Bien et le Mal,” rap français is poised for global expansion.

Between the two most popular French rap acts of the '90s, NTM and IAM, French hip-hop was innately political, and like the marginalized migrant communities where it was produced, rested firmly on the periphery of France’s collective conscience. In challenging the discriminatory practices of the police, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Front National and the discriminatory laws which blighted the lives of migrants in the city’s banlieues, French hip-hop found its raison d’être in vociferous social criticism.

However, despite an unmistakable voice and an array of exemplary Brooklyn enkindled standards, it lacked a distinct identity. Doc Gynéco’s foray into G-Funk aside, French hip-hop in the '90s resembled jerry-built East Coast boom bap. Lacking the sampling finesse of a Preemo or Pete Rock, French beats typically trudged a couple of earth rotations behind their American cousins’ production techniques.

By the time the hardcore Haitian Kery James registered rap français’ tenth No. 1 album in 2009, US rap acts had already topped the Billboard 200 over a hundred times. Hip-hop was now a billion dollar industry copulating with corporate America; the secondary market, notwithstanding a scattering of domestic classics, increasingly parroted the aesthetic of US hip-hop, constituting little more than a subculture within its homeland.

France’s rappers represented the breadth of its bestial globetrotting; Algerian, Malagasy, Guadalupian, Senegalese and all conquered peoples in between. But despite minor flirtations with native styles, French rap had yet to embrace myriad musical influences that were an everyday part of the lives of France’s migrant communities. However, in 2010, a Parisian collective—Congolese, Guinean, Senegalese, Ivorian, Malian (and one French)—emerged to lead Africa to the forefront of French rap and help inspire France’s first original contribution to hip-hop.

Like most trendsetters, Sexion d’Assaut split opinion. For some, the seven-piece ensemble marked the end of what formalists reverently call “pure rap.” For others, they were the catalyst of a movement which led to hip-hop’s current unparalleled popularity in France. Incontestable, however, was the success of their breakout single “Désole,” which in 2010 became the most listened to French hip-hop track in nearly a decade. “Désole’s” indelible refrain injected a rare melody into a scene not noted for its verse-chorus sections and power-pop hooks. In earning both a 3x platinum-certified album and a diamond-certified album in the span of 24 months, Sexion d’Assaut’s line of uncontroversial hip-pop seemed poised to reconcile France’s strained relationship with music primarily conceived of as a dissident polemic.

Unlike his namesake, the Congolese-born Gims, né Gandhi Djuna, divided a nation. While purists lamented the end of la belle epoque of rap hexagonal, Gim’s endless supply of transmissible hooks led an acceptably African version of hip-hop to the foreground of the French music scene. His debut solo album, Subliminal, released in 2013, was a radio-friendly hybrid of orderly hip-hop and R&B, spawning the salsa-cum-reggaeton colossus “Bella” (clocking in at over 400 million views on YouTube) and quietly outselling Kanye West’s acclaimed Yeezus the same year.

By the release of his second album two years later, Gims’ major chord anthems and brand of “more open and less aggressive” rap had become a genuine part of the fabric of French culture. Selling on par with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Gims’ sophomore release further bifurcated his musical output with the career-defining “Sapés Comme Jamais.” An ode to the Congolese fashion movement Sapeurs his father helped popularise as part of Papa Wemba band in his native Congo, the rumba-rap cross-pollination capitalized on the burgeoning Nigerian Afropop scene, led by Wizkid and P-Square, and became a viral francophone sensation, ensconced in history with a memorable performance at Les Victoires de la Musique.

Gims’ accessible African rap became an instant floor filler at diaspora wedding receptions while also appealing to the exoticism of the white French media, gaining him backlash from some French rap pioneers. NTM’s Joey Starr, who, in the '90s, was sentenced to prison for performing an anti-police song, labeled Gims’ music “shit” and derisory to a profession he had helped establish. Though his hip-hop card may have been up for deliberation, the sight of the son of clandestine refugee immigrants, front and center at the premier French music awards performing the Congolese rumba, earmarked new possibilities for French hip-hop—and French migrants.

Under the generic banner of trap that was to come in the mid-twenty-tens, hip-hop’s vulgarisation didn't spare France. Although the Atlanta sample pack was basic enough to assemble an improvement on the tinpot budget beats French producers were crafting to mimic their American counterparts a few years prior; it was sufficiently spartan to provide the basis for a new sound.

Several weeks after Gims released his second album, a former Parisian pizza delivery boy parlayed a viral freestyle video over Nigerian Afropop into a genre of his own making. Mohamed Sylla, or MHD, indifferent to the American influence on French hip-hop, fused trap with his childhood African musical influences and created Afro Trap. His subsequent releases exploded domestically, with “Champions League,” before crossing borders with the uproarious “La Puissance.”

As Gims and MHD capitalized on the synergistic opportunity of Afropop’s newfound global marketability and the financial possibilities of OTT streaming, a pair of brothers were preparing to take French rap to incredible heights. Tarik and Nabil Andrieu, known professionally as PNL, short for peace and lovés (lovés being slang for money), became an overnight sensation in the summer of 2015, by virtue of their drug dealing anthem “Le Monde ou Rien.” The duo’s unwillingness to entertain interviews or radio appearances lent their melancholic, distorted bars an added air of intrigue and fostered a dedicated community of superfans ready to decipher their lyrics to piece together the mystery.

PNL’s languid, trillwave production was inherently Memphis in its origins, but their Auto-Tune aesthetic predated T-Pain by a decade. Raï, a folk music native of Algeria, literally meaning “to express an opinion,” had widely incorporated Auto-Tune into its arsenal for decades. Seen by many as running contrary to Islamic values, Raï became an artistic form of expressing the complexities of the young Maghrebi identity as its popularity grew outside of North Africa and into immigrant communities in France.

The amorous Auto-Tune crooning of Algerians like Cheb Khaled was agreeable postcolonial contributions to French pop music from its former colony, despite the paradoxical disinterest in housing North Africans within the French peninsula. However, the second generation strains of the half-Algerian brothers—abandoned by their mother and raised in France’s most notorious projects by a Sicilian mob-related father—had an added accent on their pitch-altered ballads.

PNL’s lugubrious tracks contrasted with the energy of Afro Trap, but their hazy cocktail of street French, dope peddling bars, and sporadic Jungle Book references became atypically Parisian. Rap’s reintegration through native sounds had an immediately pervasive effect on the scene, as Afro Trap and cloud rap burgeoned through a new generation of emcees like Niska and Kalash, while veterans of the scene, like Booba, turned to their African roots for inspiration.

The demise of the traditional music business model and the rapid augmentation of streaming services rendered the traditional industry gatekeepers impotent and democratized music for a global audience. France’s SNEP followed the RIAA’s decision in 2016 to incorporate streams into its certifications, a reorchestration that would give hip-hop a latent advantage to prosper. The ability to consume what you like, when you like—for free—inevitably favored a genre entrenched in the lives and communities of those least likely to be able to have the expendable income to purchase music regularly.

The Paris terrorist attacks in late 2015, which kindled further stigmatization of France’s Muslim community, also engendered a symbiotic rise in Muslim rappers. Buoyed by increased scrutiny and accusation, a new generation of Islamic rappers emerged, forging careers out of the firestorm, using hip-hop to express the reality and frustration of their situations. With no sentry, label to impress or radio playlist to politic for, streaming offered a new possibility for economic mobility to an ostracized demographic—and an opportunity to succeed in the very un-French possibility of expressing your ethnic identity.

For Muslim rappers like Gims, Booba, Kery James, and PNL, assimilating into the newly democratized French music scene required no restriction of religious or cultural identity. And for the millions of second generation Africans and foreign-born migrants promised the fruits of being French and unable to obtain them in the face of blatant discrimination, hip-hop became a vicarious outlet for cultural pride. This coalescence, fraught with identity politics, provided the impetus for a meteoric rise in French rap that few could have predicted.

As Chance the Rapper was being celebrated for winning a GRAMMY with his self-released, streaming-only mixtape Coloring Book, in 2016, PNL were simultaneously breaking French streaming records with their self-released album, doubling up Chance in their first week, and going on to move 800,000 units. Driven by the hugely popular “DA,” the enigmatic duo and their melodious odes to dope peddling forcibly seized their first number one album, with no help or hindrance from the French music industry.

While presidential hopeful Henry de Lesquen was proposing banning “negro music,” due to its alleged propensity to appeal to the “reptilian brain and provoke savagery,” French hip-hop entered 2017 more marketable than ever. The most prosperous year in the history of the genre, hip-hop overhauled French popular music. An incredible 11 French hip-hop albums climbed to the top of the chart, with album sales breaching new boundaries.

In evolving as a melange of Afro Trap, gangsta, cloud, and pop-rap, French rappers generated over two billion views on YouTube, helping to export domestic hip-hop to francophone Africa, which became an increasing source of pride. Fashioning space for all French-speaking backgrounds, Belgian rappers like Damso, Romeo Elvis, Hamza, and a stellar group of native French—white—emcees, including Nekfeu, Lomepal, and VALD, similarly found favor with a young generation of disaffected suburban and middle-class French youth alike.

The certification model changed in 2018, limiting qualifying streams to paid subscriptions, yet rap français continued to increase. Despite the population of France being merely one-fifth of the US, Orelsan from Normandy sold as many copies of his third album La fete est finie as JAY-Z and Beyonce’s Everything is Love, while Niska moved more units of his debut album Commando than Pusha-T, Nipsey Hussle, and Mac Millers’ GRAMMY nominated albums.

Of the 22 number one singles in France last year, over half were French hip-hop. Of the 18 chart-topping albums in 2018, eight came by way of rap, as French rappers sat atop of the album charts for 32 weeks of the twelvemonth. In its first 20 years of existence, only 14 French rap albums were able to secure a number one position. Since 2014, 33 French hip-hop albums have claimed the top spot. France is not only the second biggest market for hip-hop, but it’s also now arguably the most prolific.

PNL currently have the second highest first week pure sales (63,000 units) of any hip-hop album in the world in 2019, with their new album Deux Fréres, more than DJ Khaled’s Son of Asahd, Future’s The Wizrd, and 2 Chainz’s Rap or Go to the Leaguecombined. Their overall first-week consumption was more than 113,000 SPS, putting them in fifth place globally, and is predictably unaccounted for in any American publications.

Nekfeu, a fellow Parisian, recently released his film/project Les Étoiles Vagabondes, which drew 100,000 people to the cinema for a one-off showing. Released the same week, the first part of the eponymous album sold 85,000 units (38,000 in sales), making first-week consumption of the project the highest of any album in hip-hop in the world in 2019—before sales for the second half of the album are even counted.

In addition to PNL’s achievements, all but two of 2019’s chart-topping singles have featured a rapper from Paris. Likewise, a Parisian emcee has held a number one album in every calendar month of the year so far—six months have seen over 115 hip-hop albums released and hundreds of millions of YouTube views amassed.

While the language barrier previously stagnated crossover appeal, French rap is now making inroads throughout non-French speaking countries in Europe. Given the year-on-year increase in streams of non-English genres such as Reggaeton and K-Pop in the UK and the US, the possibilities of foreign language music breaking out of its domestic base are at an all-time high.

Today, English speaking audiences are listening to a broader range of music than ever before, and French hip-hop is in a unique position that it previously was never offered in anglophone media. At this rate, it’s not a matter of if, only when rap français ends up in your favorite Spotify playlist.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, "lovés" was incorrectly referred to as drugs; it means money. Also, “Sapés Comme Jamais” is an ode to the Congolese fashion movement Sapeurs, not Sape.

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