French rap entered the new decade confronted with the kind of bigotry that made its rise throughout the 2010s so poignant. Despite the success of domestic rap in France over the past 12 months, the Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of the Grammys) chose not to select a single person of color in either its Artist or Album of the Year categories.
Notwithstanding the repugnant parochialism, rap français kicked off the decade in a typically eclectic fashion. Underscored by Népal’s sublime posthumous album Adios Bahamas, January saw the mainstream and the underground combine to produce a month rich in trap, drill, cloud, and alternative rap.
Here, for your discovery, are the five best French rap songs of January 2020.
Sofiane — “#Jesuispasséchezso Episode 12”
French rap’s renaissance man, Sofiane—better known as Fianso—is a rapper, label owner, presenter, and board treading thespian. Emerging in 2007, it would take a full decade before the man from Paris’ Saint-Denis suburbs would implant himself in France’s mainstream consciousness. In 2016, Fianso debuted his career-defining freestyle series #Jesuispasséchezso (I stopped by your place) and immediately followed up with three Platinum albums in the space of 12 months. During the same calendar year, he created a pioneering rap cypher series and established his own Capitol imprint, Affranchis, which has since launched the careers of Soolking and Heuss l’Enfoiré. With a budding acting career in fruition, the enterprising 33-year-old is a hardcore rapper determined to broaden the horizons of French rap.
“#Jesuispasséchezso Episode 12” is Sofiane’s return to his successful freestyle franchise, following a two-year absence. Buoyed by Tarik Azzouz’s champion’s walk riddim, “Episode 12” is a scorched earth offensive directed at Fianso’s disparagers, and innocent bystanders alike (“There are kids selling drugs on Deliveroo and your favorite rapper thinks he’s Pacino”). A cannonade of one-liners (“In a light suit on a red carpet, sicarios, we don’t fear John Wick”), the latest installment of #Jesuispasséchezso is a timely reminder that French rap’s most entrepreneurial talent is still one of its most assertive emcees.
Makala — “Toys R Us”
Emerging from the bustling Geneva hip-hop scene, Makala and producer Pink Flamingo combine to form one of the most diverse brands of francophone rap. A staple of the independent Swiss Colors label since his 2013 debut, the 26-year-old rapper and singer’s free-spirited variety of hip-hop has enduringly bucked French rap trends. In combination with Pink Flamingo’s Star Trak inspired sounds, Makala’s blend of ultra self-assured rhymes and dulcet crooning have fashioned the Genevese a faithful following in France. His latest album, 2019’s sarcastically entitled Radio Suicide, was unanimously considered one of the best French rap albums of the year.
“Toys R Us” is Makala’s latest single, an electro-funk inspired response to those who deem his version of hip-hop to be less than authentic (“I don’t give fuck about your vision of rap.”) Positing on how if he were American he’d already be a fixture on the Billboard charts (“If I lived in the States, I’d blow up quickly”), Makala laments the industry indifference to experimental rap (“too much talent to have empty pockets”). “Toys R Us” is yet another masterclass in melody and aplomb from an emcee who truly comes into his own when he starts singing.
Maes — “Distant” featuring Ninho
The popular pick of the new generation of rappers from the Sevran suburb of Paris, which includes 13 Block and Kalash Criminel, Maes has firmly imposed himself on the French scene in a mere two years. The 25-year-old, releasing his first mixtape from the confines of prison in 2017, celebrated his liberty with his breakout single “Madrina” the following year. With style rooted in influences as diverse as French pop melancholist Daniel Balavoine, Maes combines his wistful rhymes with Auto-Tuned intones to fashion an all-encompassing rap universe. Maes followed up his Platinum 2018 debut Pure with his sophomore album Les Derniers Salopards in January.
“Distant” is the second single from Les Derniers Salopards and features the omnipresent Ninho. Produced by Holo Mobb and Boumidjal, the first collaboration between NI and Maes is a soukous led tale of drug trafficking, complete with the obligatory references to Narcos and Tony Montana. Led by refrain-for-hire Ninho, who boasts of his royalties being on par with French icon Johnny Hallyday, “Distant” propelled Les Derniers Salopards to the top of the French album charts, and has already ensured 23-year-old Ninho his 62nd Gold singles plaque.
Freeze Corleone — “Welcome to the Party Freestyle”
Few underground rappers are more esteemed in France than Freeze Corleone. The Senegalese-Italian rapper from the Saint-Denis suburbs of Paris has built a uniquely partisan following over the past decade. Boasting more aliases than a freewheeling president, the man sometimes known as Yung Tom Jedusor injects atypically erudite punchlines into his conspiracist ideation fueled verses. From his 2011 debut, the 27-year-old has amassed a staunchly praised discography, including a couple of first-rate Swishahouse inspired chopped and screwed remixes.
“Welcome to the Party freestyle” is a refixing of Pop Smoke’s breakout hit. Produced by 808Melo, Freeze inserts his potent cocktail of lean and sports references into the exemplary UK drill riddim. Alluding to his misprized influence (“Audio dope in a bag, your favorite rappers listen to us every day on the sly”), French rap’s Ra’s al Ghul’s fast-moving twist on drill’s 2019 anthem eclipses the original, with a flow that marries wickedly with the high-tempo sub-bass. An unexpected post-holiday gift, “Welcome to the Party” is a harbinger of Freeze’s highly anticipated project, La menace fantôme, expected this year.
F430 — “Réel”
Buoyed by the Auto-Tune revolution in the U.S., Sensei and Jet’s fascination with Drake and Migos inspired their decision to enter the booth for the first time in 2014. Alongside neighborhood friends PNL, the twosome, known collectively as F430, constitute a brotherhood of rappers from the same housing projects, a community committed to the interdependence that has instigated a cloud rap revolution in France. The duo released their stellar debut album Thank You God in January 2019 and followed it up with the excellent EP, Street Quality this past December.
“Réel” is Street Quality’s lead single, an airy slice of Tarterêts trillwave with an onerous subcurrent. Produced by 18-year-old beatmaker Lil’ Ben, the track is an ethereal nod to removing yourself from your circumstances, by the means at your disposal (“I didn’t grow up in joy, to survive I had to sell death.”) Fashioning their unique brand of 808 melancholy from PNL’s ample imprint, “Réel” firmly attests to the brother’s “Que la miff” (family only) fraternal philosophy (“All for the gang and the money, the rest, I don’t give a fuck.”)