At the tail end of an elongated February, Laylow unveiled Trinity, his fifth full-length solo project and the standout French rap album of the year so far. A digital hip-hopera, Trinity charters a female operating system’s attempt to bridle Laylow’s melancholy in a fictional reality where emotions escape him. Impeccably scored by Dioscures, the cyber trap opus is the career-defining realization of the 26-year-old’s cinematic vision of rap. It will doubtlessly rank among the year’s finest 10 months from now.
The independently released Trinity became Laylow’s highest performing first-week sales project to date, but French rap superstar Ninho returned to break national records in March, with his new mixtape M.I.L.S. III. Needlessly leaked a week before its intended surprise release, the project was officially brought forward to counter the streams. In a short week of six days, the mixtape produced the fastest Gold single in history, “Lettre a une femme,” which received the classification in only nine days and added a 66th Gold singles plaque to the 23-year-old’s record-breaking collection. The track instantly shot to the top of the French charts, accruing the biggest first-week streams ever for a French rap song, since the introduction of streaming.
March also marked the slight return of the golden era Parisian boom bap, in the shape of Guizmo’s new single “History X.” The emcee of Malian-Senegalese and Malagasy heritage has been a staple of Paris’ underground rap scene for over a decade. After a stint in prison in his late teens, Guizmo—styled after the Gremlins character of the same name—turned his full attention to rap, inserting himself into the flourishing Parisian battle scene. Releasing the first of nine solo albums in 2011, Guizmo has built an impressive reputation for his vivid portraits of life on the periphery of Paris, drawn from self-lived battles with alcoholism and the authorities.
Produced by frequent collaborator Nizi, “History X” is Guizmo at his free-spoken finest. Striding an evocative beat, harkening back to the Brooklyn impelled sounds of late 90s French rap, the 29-year-old recounts his personal history of life in the streets of Paris—“Since I was sixteen I’ve been fucking the prosecution.” Lamenting his unrealized dreams with trademark candor (“I’ve already written my will, It’s for my son and my wife, I wanted to give them the moon“), “History X” is a fitting reminder that the kick-snare marriage can still soundtrack a potent story.
Marking his fourth decade in hip-hop, the uncle of French rap, Rim’K’s career reinvention continued into 2020 with his new single “Valise” (Suitcase). A founding member of two of rap français’ most acclaimed groups, 113 and Mafia K1 Fry, the rapper of Algerian origin from Vitry-sur-Seine is also responsible for some of the most memorable hits in the genre’s history, including “Tonton du Bled” and “Pour ceux.” With 15 albums to his name, Rim’K scored his first French No. 1 single in 2018 at the tender age of 40, with the Nike TN anthem “Air Max.”
His new single, featuring SCH and Koba LaD, is further evidence that the 40s are the new 30s in rap. Produced by Guilty, Rim’K leads the generational triumvirate in a barter of sinful boasts (“I’m walking my Glock down the boulevard like a pet”) with 19-year-old Koba LaD lending his characteristic voice mutation to a signal refrain. Uniting the past, present, and future of French rap for the first time, “Valise” is set to be the lead single from an as-yet-untitled Rim’K project scheduled for 2020.
Songwriter to the stars, Meryl stepped out of the shadows with her impressive debut full-length project, Jour avant Caviar, in late February. Born and raised in the French West Indies island of Martinique, the rapper-singer has quietly become one of the most in-demand topliners in France over the past three years. The 24-year-old—responsible for the melodies behind Top 10 hits for SCH and Niska, among others—combines the Zouk and Dancehall influences of the Antilles with an ariose trap aesthetic.
Helmed by a hypnotic riddim by Junior Alaprod, “Coucou” is a sensual declaration directed at the object of Meryl’s desire (“God sent her, we only open our mouths to say thank you.”) Driven by a high-pitched infectious refrain, “Coucou” elegantly manifests the range that has made Meryl such a sought after songwriter in France. A communique of an artist primed to finally receive the plaudits her talent merits.
March also saw the release of Josman’s sophomore album, SPLIT, preceded by the heady new single “J’allume.” The 27-year-old, who traded his central France hometown of Vierzon for the unforgiving Parisian suburbs in search of his rap dream, built his reputation in Paris’ underground open mic scene. Emerging with his first EP in 2015, Josman followed up with his excellent full-length debut, J.O.$, in 2018, earning the emcee of Angolan and Congolese origin a Gold album certification on his first attempt.
The highlight of SPLIT, “J’allume” (I Light Up), is Josman’s stirring ode to THC. Driven by a wistful fingerstyle guitar rhythm, Josman accompanies the strings with a series of hemp-powered reflections (“I light up and I’m on a first-name basis with the clouds.”) Self-produced, alongside longtime collaborators Eazy Dew and Miguel Lopes, “J’Allume” recounts Josman’s daily ritual of herbally tempering his anxiety, sometimes just to persevere (“I have my head on the moon but there are tears in my pen.”)
Jo Le Pheno’s stellar debut album, 60 Boulevard Ménilmontant, rounded out a month of excellent independent rap releases. The native of Paris’ 20ème arrondissement is one of a dozen rappers to have been formally charged by the state over the past 25 years, for lyrics deemed to incite. In 2016, after a summer of police brutality that resulted in the sexual assault and murder of black men at the hands of the Parisian police, Jo retorted in rap, denouncing the police with his song “Bavure.” The emcee of proud Congolese heritage, who was sentenced in 2017, refuses to be silenced, displaying maturity in his real-life rhymes that belie his 25 years.
The album—named after the squat in which Jo was raised with his family—is a dynamic melange of the past and present of rap français, from boom bap to Afro trap, by way of trap. The focal point of the project, “Déjà 10 piges” (“10 Years Already”), is a throwback to the vaunted era of storytelling over stripped-down beats. A lucid account of the hardships of life in a Paris off the beaten tourist track, Jo confronts his misgivings in a passionate depiction of segregation in one of the wealthiest cities in the world (“We want to get out of poverty, but tell me, how many made it, and how many tried?”)