We’ve turned the calendar to September, but August marked the celebrated return to screens of an enigmatic brotherhood. While France’s reigning rap monarch made a formal declaration of war, a mysterious masked rapper emerged with an unexpected collection of rare gems. From ethereal rap ballads to city proud bangers, we leave you in the august company of the best of rap français.
Album of the Month
A riddle in French hip-hop, Népal—formerly known as Grand Master Splinter—is one of a growing number of French rappers to shun the public eye. Concealed under a hood in his videos, or a mask in his live performances, Népal’s solitary public interview in 2015 turned out to be a hoax when fans discovered he had sent a friend along to entertain the questioning. Fortunately, his musical output has been more forthcoming. With two projects as one half of the duo 2Fingz and four solo EPs under his belt, Népal’s standout feature on French rap personage Nekfeu’s Cyborg in 2016 underscored the Parisian as one of rap français’ breakout prospects.
2016-2018 is a care package of choice cuts from his three EPs, uploaded between said dates. Sedulously curated from projects that were previously unavailable on streaming platforms, the compilation is produced in its entirety by producer KLM (another pseudonym of Népal's.) On the straight-talking opener “Niveau 1,” Népal divulges his contempt for his “country of racists” and its homogenizing trends (“Nine in the morning, line 10, to fall asleep I count the Stan Smiths”), before embracing his diffidence on the supernal “Rien d’special.”
Throughout 2016 - 2018, Népal coalesces his transcendental 808 riddims with serene introspection. Call this astral rap. On “Kodak White,” he turns Kodak Black’s “No Flockin’” into a dulcet rap lullaby, before sublimely recasting Baby Bash’s “Suga Suga” as a precautionary chopped and screwed ditty, warning of the Parisian fast life (“Paris chews you up and spits you out”). The airy calm of “Babylone” is laced with industry cynicism, while the masked rapper luxuriates over the crunk undertones of “1500.” With a flow so pliable it soothes French consonants, Népal caresses syllables with a cadence to rival the very best French plumes.
“Blanka” by PNL
In the space of four years, the brother combination of PNL have forged a career out of making a public mockery of the French music industry’s inability to comprehend its hip-hop public. With over 800,000 copies of their last album Dans la Legende sold in France, and their new album Deux Fréres registering 300,000 sales since its release in April, the brothers are the most successful independent rappers in the world.
The duo—who have never spoken publicly—and their small team of associates have sagely plotted their success, integrating an emotive aesthetic into a fine-tuned scarcity marketing campaign, that is already the subject of academic research. Much like their advertising strategies—which includes partnerships with Uber, Instagram, and Snapchat filters and sending a monkey to an interview on their behalf—their videos have become an anticipated event in France. Noted for their cinematic visuals, which have seen them walk with hyenas in the desert and smoke weed inside the Eiffel Tower, the brothers take to bamboo rafting in the Jamaican jungle on their latest single “Blanka.”
Named after the Street Fighter II character, “Blanka” keeps with the brothers’ evoking of storybook spirit animals such as Simba or Mowgli. These fictional characters raised in hostile environments represent PNL’s rise from their notorious projects to the summit of French exclusivity. The fifth release from Deux Fréres, a peak cloud rap ballad, is dedicated to their come-up and growing ambivalence to success (“I don’t want to be like the king, I’m worth more than that”). Quavering over the hypnotic production with their characteristic self-analysis (“I told my shadow, you should run away/it seems like it knew what I would become in the future”), “Blanka” is vintage PNL in all their melancholic glory.
“GLAIVE” by Booba
Booba is the biggest star in the history of French hip-hop. Since emerging as one-half of the iconic, Mobb Deep inspired Lunatic in 1999, he’s registered three Gold, three Platinum, and two triple-Platinum albums. In addition to boasting collaborations with Future, Rick Ross, and Diddy, Bobba is also a successful record company owner and created one of France’s most popular streetwear lines. His latest album, 2017’s Trône (Throne), is his ninth solo album in 17 years. Yes, his nod to sovereignty was fully intended.
With over two decades in the scene, Booba has long declared himself to be the king of French rap, a claim that has inevitably attracted its share of heir apparents. While many believe Booba has lost certain battles, his challengers’ triumphs were pyrrhic. Booba’s commitment to modernity has consistently ensured his strategic victory—as his challengers have fallen to the commercial wayside. His feud with Kaaris, his current adversary, erupted in a now-infamous mass brawl at a Paris airport. The two were absurdly supposed to meet in an Octagon in Switzerland this November to settle their differences before the fight was unsurprisingly called off by authorities.
While hip-hop’s first MMA showdown may have to wait, Booba’s counterstrikes will not. “GLAIVE” (sword) is Booba’s latest declaration of war; an auto-tuned assault on anyone who wants it—particularly his former protégé Damso (“I’ve been at war for so long, the next one’s Damso, don’t make me swear on my mother’s life''). Steering the discordant strings with aggressive jests about his prosperity and the careers he’s left in his wake. At a mere 1:56, “GLAIVE” is the Duke of Boulogne’s expert treatise on the economy of warfare.
“PARIS” by Zikxo
Writing his first raps at the tender age of eight, and raised on a steady diet of golden-age French boom-bap, Zikxo is a student of the home-bred rap game. His name is in part derived from a rearranging of one of his childhood inspirations, Zoxea. Rising to prominence in 2018 through a series of potent freestyles filmed in his neighborhood in the northeast suburbs of Paris, the emcee of Guyanese descent quickly turned the right heads in the French music industry.
Catching the attention of French rap heavyweight Jul, who invited him to feature on his Planete Rap showcase, Zikxo subsequently signed his first deal with Warner subsidiary Rec. 118. The label, home to some of France’s most successful artists, including Aya Nakamura, Soprano, Ninho, and SCH, debuted his first official project Temps on September 6.
“PARIS” is Zikxo’s second single from his upcoming debut; an uncompromising street banger dedicated to the streets of the City of Lights that bypass the tourist trail. With a guttural flow, reminiscent of Booba himself, Zikxo quickly picks up where his freestyles left off, hammering the Guilty-produced beat with some of the wickedest inflections you’ll hear in French. Rapping with the urgency of an artist aware of the need to fashion a swift reputation among a burgeoning scene of talented emcees, Zikxo’s insistent bars and taut flow turn “PARIS” into a first-rate statement of intent.
“En Bas” by 4Keus featuring Siboy
Formed in 2015, and initially comprised of seven members, 4Kues became a concise foursome in 2018. Specializing in zumba—a crudely defined subgenre of French rap and a catch-all for any pop-oriented song with marked African or Caribbean underpinnings—the group was quickly recruited by label Wati B on the back of their Gold single “O'Kartier c'est la hess” in 2017. The quartet named after their infamous “4000 city” projects (its 4000 apartments house more people than Queensbridge) in Paris’ northern suburbs are barely into their 20s and have already amassed over 250 million views on YouTube, with a debut album under their belt.
A balaclaved beatmaker-turned-rapper, Siboy is equally at ease crooning Afropop refrains as he is disgorging hardcore 16s on trap riddims. Born in Congo-Brazzaville and raised in the Eastern French town of Mulhouse, Siboy signed to Booba’s Capitol imprint 92i in 2015. Building a dependable reputation as being one of the most versatile artists in the French scene, he cemented his celebrity with the Platinum single “Mobali” in 2017. Following up with a debut album Special in 2018, Siboy’s highly anticipated sophomore album TWAPPLIFE is due this October.
“En bas” is the first collaboration between 4Keus and Siboy, a ndombolo infused dedication to the struggle. Over an irrepressible fingerstyle riddim, Siboy conducts the summertime floor-filler with an infectiously empowering chorus (“We have to fuck it all up, I come from the bottom”). The latest entry in the popular marriage of Congolese soukous and French rap, “En bas” is sure to feature on the soundtrack to neighborhood cookouts and wedding receptions as summer turns to fall.
“Marseille” by Guirri Mafia
Following in the rich tradition of Phoncean city rap, the Guirri Mafia are treading a path fashioned by hometown rap luminaries IAM, La Funky Family, and 3e Œil. Childhood friends Solda, Gravou, and Djiha et Malka Le Loup grew up in France’s most impoverished neighborhood—where 50% of occupants live below the poverty line—and are true-hearted to a brand of hardcore rap that has its roots in personal experience.
Releasing their only mixtape Nouvelle et dernière époque in 2013, an invitation to feature on a live Planete Rap radio set in 2018 saw the quartet score their biggest hit in years when they flipped Johnny Holiday’s ballad “Marie” into a ganja hymn. A follow-up feature on French rap luminary Rohff’s album last December and a series of singles in 2019 would seem to suggest that a Guirri Mafia album may finally be on the horizon.
“Marseille” is a rousing ode to France’s fiercely proud second city; a veritable street paean, reveling in the Mediterranian metropolitan’s sunny days and gully nights (“I paid for my Rolex with your dad’s credit card”). With a vehement, anthemic chorus that insists on being sung, “Marseille” is sure to ring out for summers to come.