Despite the formidable challenges, hip-hop’s second home made a typically impressive account for itself in the second quarter of 2020, a period typified by the emergence of the nascent French drill scene.
Oboy — “Rémus”
April witnessed the continuation of Oboy’s improbable trajectory towards pop stardom with the wistful single “Rémus.” The Madagascan-born rapper—who quietly released one of 2019’s best albums, OMEGA—charters the waters of Quiet Storm rap from the southern suburbs of Paris. “Rémus” is an avatar of Oboy’s musical cosmos, marrying somber reflections of love amid poverty with an ariose refrain to sweeten the sorrow (“Look at our battered faces and black lungs / it’s cold in the hallway, chased by death.”) Machynist’s berceuse production elicits a brooding introspection from the 23-year-old, who captures the paradox of being almost-famous in rap when hardship is your foundation (“One foot in the dirt, one foot on the stage, how ironic.”)
The second trimester also brought with it the first solo album from in-demand producer twinsmatic, ATLAS. Originally a duo composed of friends, Julian and Nadeem, who made enough noise with their synth stout remixes to be plucked from working at a Parisian fashion store by Booba, twinsmatic is now a solo act helmed by Julian. A fixture on Booba’s last three albums, the twinsmatic name was immortalized in rhyme on Damso’s “Macarena.” ATLAS’ night drive soundscape stars the cream of French rap, culminating with the frenetic “X2,” featuring SCH.
twinsmatic — “X2” feat. SCH
The expansive production of “X2,” a synthesis of discordant Shaolin keys and electro stabs, is bespoke for the S to untether a battery of flows and brazen self-indulgence in his unmistakable Marlboro gruff. Stratified metaphors and we-are-not-the-same bon mots are the Marseillais’ métier and “X2” brims with both (“Your wife and that woman know who I am, I speak to convicts and Ezekiel.”) The 27-year-old, who came to the fore of French rap with the outstanding A7 in 2015, released his fifth album, Rooftop, last November.
The best of Paris’ April offerings included LuXe’s rousing quid pro quo collaboration with Bessy Bess, “La Fin du Film.” The son of Iranian freedom fighters who sought refuge in France, LuXe pursued his sanctum in hip-hop’s birthplace, leaving behind the uncompromising Parisian suburbs as a youth to embrace the elements in the Bronx. Returning to France as a self-reliant producer-emcee, LuXe imbues his realist rhymes with lived experiences from the underbellies of two of the world’s most romanticized cities. An ominous trap heater, “La Fin Du Film” is a’ hustler’s digest (“Bank fraud, dealing, we’ve taken every shortcut”) that climaxes with an anthemic and precautionary chorus for all would-be street entrepreneurs (“You think you’re Scarface, like you didn’t see the end of the movie.”)
Slimka — “24K”
April’s best full-length French rap project came from the maverick Genevan SuperWak Clique in Switzerland. After delaying his anticipated debut album due to the prevailing circumstances, Slimka issued the 9-track TUNNEL VISION PRELUDE as an album pro term. Stationed on ancestrally Star Trak beats, the space odyssey synths and thunderous sub-bass forge a futuristic sonora for the 26-year-old to bless with his exigent repertoire. De-emphasized as an EP, semantics aside, the skip-free selection is one of 2020’s most gratifying repeat listens. The project, which followed fellow SuperWak member Varnish La Piscine’s funk-charged METRONOME POLE DANCE TWIST AMAZONE in March, was pursued by a dreamy dose of Genevese boogie rap from associate Makala in May.
May saw the crowned head of rap français, Booba, return to his throne with the towering single “JAUNÉ,” in collaboration with 13 Block’s Zed. Booba—who presides over his fiefdom remotely from Southern Florida—is 25 years and six Platinum albums into an inimitable career in hip-hop that has seen him outlast every rapper who has entered his dominion.
Booba — “JAUNÉ” feat. Zed
Entering his third decade as the most commercially successful 40-something in rap, “JAUNÉ” was Booba’s sixth No. 1 and 14th Top 5 hit since turning 40 in 2016. An early adopter of Auto-Tune, le Duc has perfected his line of pitch-altered melodies, reinventing himself as one of the most celebrated hook virtuosos in France. Packing euphony and self-satisfaction equal measure (I like the perfume she wears, I like the way she moves her hips / I’ll create an app to fuck her, I’ll self-finance it) Booba’s “JAUNÉ” projected immediately to the top of the charts in mid-May and garnered a Gold plaque in June.
2020 marks the 20th anniversary of Booba’s classic debut album, Mauvais Œil, as one-half of Lunatic, an anniversary shared with Soso Maness, who made his first appearance the same year as a 12-year-old on Intouchable’s debut album. Coming of age in the doggedly impoverished Font Vert neighborhood in Marseille, the precarious immediacy of banlieue life led the would-be child star to carve out a more hazardous reputation on the street instead.
Over a decade later, with a foot firmly in the revolving prison door, a reflective decision to write a rhyme turned into a serendipitous studio encounter with French rap industrialist Jul, who recorded his first solo song the same day. Attempting to balance a burgeoning rap career with full-time drug dealing, a return to prison merely days after releasing a viral hit in 2016 clarified Soso Maness’ calling. Signing with Sony upon his release, his debut album, Rescapé, was released last year at the tender age of 31.
Soso Maness — “Mistral”
In May, Soso released “Mistral,” the haunting title track from his second album. Centered on a chilling sample from a 1982 community chorale, recorded by infants from his local Marseille district, the hymn narrates the enduring French immigrant struggle—“The cops force us in their vans, they beat us with batons.” “Mistral” is Soso Maness’ public confession, the conflicted tale of an immigrant’s son, born and bred in the same ostracized community. Soso spends the song’s three minutes acknowledging his misdeeds (“I saw syringes in the sandbox where the kids were playing / I smacked the junkie and then realized it was because of me”), religious conflict (“I was drunk, toasting with Shaitan”), and his life-altering epiphany (“Death doesn’t wait for you to be a good man, just be a good man and wait for death.”)
Serving as the poignant intro to the album released in June, “Mistral” epitomizes the 32-year-old’s sophomore effort: potent, personal, and teeming with candor. Mistral’s harsh realities—making liars of tall-tale rappers—are tempered by Maness’ proclivity for Cote d’Azur nightlife, which serves as inspiration for the album’s breakout single, “So Maness.” The topical highlight, however, is the “Heart-Shaped Box” inspired “Interlude,” which flips the Nirvana standard into a timely fuck the police anthem (“We piss you off, we don’t like you, we see you abusing your rights every night.”)
In a country where innocent Black lives are extinguished in police stations with no redress, law enforcement is a bounteous lyrical source. June saw breaking point frustrations expressed in verse; Kalash Criminel’s menacing “Écrasement de tête” exhorted self-defense (“But aren’t the police supposed to protect us? Fuck the police, we have guns for protection”) while Jo Le Pheno took to a UK drill riddim to excoriate police murder for the third time with “BAVURE 3.0” (“How many are dead? We’ve lost count.”)
South London’s transmutation of Chicagoan innovation has initiated a wave of UK-inspired drill across Europe, with France being no exception. In June, two of the trailblazers of the fertile French drill scene arose from the underground to deliver 140bpm bedlam. 1PLIKÉ140 issued his first long-play, 1PLIKTOI, beaconed by the uncompromising single “Cruel,” while Gazo provided the pick of the month’s Brixton-influenced bangers, with the fourth edition of his Drill FR series.
Influenced by the Harlem Spartans and Headie One, the Saint-Denis native emerged last year with his first extract of “Drill Fr.” Dropping a further two volumes and a single, “Acte de Burberry,” in May, Gazo has briskly established himself as the face of French drill. The fourth installment of Drill FR features 667 conspiracist and lean apostle Freeze Corleone. Produced by Flem, the agitational symposium on ill-gotten gains and amateur pharmacology is a feverish contribution to Gazo’s growing reputation. At the same time, underground Czar Corleone again certifies his ability to joyride any riddim put in front of him.
Lefa — “Incassable” feat. Leto
UK drill has turned the heads of some of the continent’s most established rappers, including Lefa, who debuted his new drill-inspired single, “Incassable,” featuring Leto in June. The 34-year-old, who influenced a generation of French emcees as the wordsmith of Sexion d’Assaut, deftly conducts a booming lament of consumerism (“I don’t care how much your bag or belt cost, or the table you sit at / Don’t tell me you spent it, you should’ve banked it.”) The prolific Leto, who released his second project of the quarter in June, controverts his elder with a more youthful, tenacious approach to economizing—“I dress in Gucci, Louis Vuitton, but I’ve got money in the bank if it’s war.”
France’s homegrown rap styles were blooming in June as well. PNL’s reimagined cloud rap was given a fresh twist by associates F430 and their excellent hemp-powered single “California.” The month closed out with the return of the best-selling French rapper of all time, Jul, who delivered his first album of the year, La Machine. The uber-productive 30-year-old—who has released two self-produced Platinum albums a year since 2014—has fashioned a wildly popular brand of kitsch rap in France.
Scoring his seventh number-one album, the ne plus ultra of the album is “Rentrez pas dans ma tête,” a bitterly reflective collaboration with emcee emeritus Nessbeal. The 41-year-old, in semi-retirement since 2011 following a decade of acclaim unaccompanied by commercial success, relinquishes two lofty, melancholic verses that turn the year’s most improbable collaboration into its most memorable so far.