Between the holidays and end of decade epilogues, we’ll forgive you for missing France putting a bow on one of its most exceptional years of hip-hop to date. A month packed with stellar releases, December witnessed multi-Platinum powerhouse Jul deliver his second album of the year while Belgian sensation Hamza also dropped his second surprise project of 2019. The month’s best release, however, came from rising Cloud rap duo F430, who unveiled their first-rate EP Street Quality to close out the year in hibernal fashion.
As always, here are our five choice picks from this past December in rap français.
Laylow — “MEGATRON”
Having spent formative years in Tunisia and Ivory Coast, Toulouse-born Laylow found solace in US hip-hop after returning to France at 13. Nourished on a mid-2000s amalgam of G-Unit, crunk, and nu-metal, Laylow began his career in 2011, first in partnership with Sir ‘Klo and later in collaboration with Wit. Sculpting an atypically French rap milieu from his cinematic and digital passions, Laylow debuted his first solo project, Mercy, in 2016. The 27-year-old followed up with Digitalova in 2017 and a pair of tech-inspired projects (.Raw and .RawZ) in 2018.
“MEGATRON” is Laylow’s latest single and the first release from his upcoming debut studio album. An inspired nod to Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Laylow evokes the spirit of the Joker, wreaking verbal havoc over Dioscures and Mr. Anderson’s thunderous production (“Don’t even let them try and control us, we’re sons of immigrants on a minefield.”) Murmuring baleful warnings on the intro (“It’s always the strongest who wins”), Laylow hastily reorientates “MEGATRON” into a certifiable riot anthem. A statement-of-intent banger from one of French rap’s most idiosyncratic talents.
Népal — “Là-Bas”
After a collection of acclaimed, download-only mixtapes, Népal finally debuted on streaming platforms in August, with the superb compilation 2016-2018. Arranging his societal frustrations into poised and intricate reflections over celestial, self-produced beats, the Parisian fashioned uniquely intimate hip-hop cosmos. Tragically, Népal passed away at 24 in November. His debut album, Adios Bahamas, will be released as he had intended, this coming January.
“Là-Bas” is the first single from Adios Bahamas; a delicate exploration of Népal’s desire to transcend his environment for more peaceful shores (“Is this really reality or a projection of my mind?”) Floating over the balmy xylophone arrangement, Népal gently warbles his exasperations in his distinctively rarefied manner (“We didn’t choose this existence but we pay the price.”) French hip-hop will be poorer for his absence.
Lefa — “Spécial” featuring Dosseh
A founding member of one of the most successful French rap groups in history, Sexion d’Assaut, Lefa was at the forefront of France’s rap revolution during the early 2010s. After their third album L’Apogee redefined the spectrum of possibilities for French rap, the Sexion members went their separate ways in 2013. While Gims would go on to become the most prominent star in rap français, Lefa, the group’s standout rapper, steadily forged a reputation as one of France’s foremost emcees with a series of commendable LPs. The Parisian’s excellent fourth album Fame, released in October, was accompanied by some of the most innovative music videos to be found anywhere in hip-hop.
“Special,” in collaboration with Dosseh, is one of Fame’s numerous highlights; a lyrical remonstration from two emcees who believe their abilities merit wider public acclaim (“It’s true we’re not where we once were, yet not where we should be.”) Basking in bars over Alchimeek and MLK’s cultivated percussion, Fall and Doss take turns in vaunting their lyrical accomplishments in a performance that underscores their position as two of France’s most underemphasized wordsmiths.
DTF — “Dans la ville”
Raised in the southeastern suburbs of Paris, RKM and RTI began their careers alongside RKM’s cousins, Ademo and N.O.S., who would later form France’s most recognized rap group, PNL. Debuting as DTF (In Your Face) in 2015, the lifelong friends mirrored PNL’s tried-and-tested formula of trillwave melancholy with their debut album La Hass avant le Bonheur the same year. The sole signees to PNL’s exclusive QLF Records, the duo registered their second Gold plaque for their sophomore effort Sans rêves in 2017. Their latest album, On ira où? (Where Are We Going?), was released this past October.
“Dans la ville” is the second single from On ira où? and features a rare appearance from N.O.S. A cloud rap ode to the housing block the trio were raised in, “Dans la ville” keeps with the album’s theme of impermanence, following the destruction of their projects. Mourning the loss of their childhood home (“I’ve probably lost things that the future doesn’t give back,”) the track, produced by Trent 700 and Amine Farsi, is accompanied by a remarkable QLF video, that sees the threesome transpose their building to the peaceful surroundings of Southeast Asia.
Nelick — “BIP BIP BIP”
Debuting straight out of high school as part of the duo PALA$$, alongside Lord Esperanza, Nelick has amassed a prolific body of work in the space of a few short years. Following PALA$$’ solitary EP in 2016, the young rapper from Paris’ eastern suburbs released four EPs in 2017, followed by an additional three projects in 2018. With a sound rooted in American influences such as Tyler, The Creator and Smino, Nelick injects a Gen Z sensitivity into his fusion of rap and R&B. The 22-year-old’s latest project PIU PIU will be released on January 17.
Produced by King Doudou, “BIP BIP BIP” is the first single from PIU PIU; a candid reflection on the price of fame, veiled by a convivial refrain (“Leave me alone when I can’t control my demons anymore.”) Self-deprecating and boastful in equal parts, the chip on Nelick’s shoulder provides him with ample motivation to take aim at his phony confréres (“You say you’re from where? Liars, your videos in the hood, they’re a setup.”) Enhanced by an imaginative video—which introduces Nelick’s alter-ego, a curious composite of Walter White and Willy Wonka—”BIP BIP BIP” is a first-rate introduction to an artist seeking to broaden the boundaries of French rap.