Planet Rock

The World's Most Local Pop Music Goes International

Apparently some of the rhymes are interesting too, but when Fijian-Australian Trey comes on, it's not her modest boast that'll perk you up, or even her dulcet female tone—it's her English per se. This isn't chauvinism, it's aesthetics. Although "flow" can mean anything, just like "beats," its relationship to language is always one of its prime pleasures. You don't have to get every word to hear how a rapper's phrasing, intonation, pronunciation, and timbre inflect meaning, reshape sonics, and fuck with the other man's culture. But you have to get some of them. Thus, Nuuk Posse's hip-hop, say, is even less likely to be an English speaker's than Def Wish Cast's. When it comes to African American music, I scoff at talk of cultural imperialism. Only a Frenchman could imagine that white capitalists conspired to impose Negroes on the world. But English's status as a lingua franca has always helped African American music get over. That's why Frenchmen invented francophonie.

Skeptical of French pop, and with my experience limited to MC Solaar's mellow-to-a-fault, never-quite-released-stateside 1997 Paradisiaque, I was intrigued by Global Noise's account of French hip-hop as an oppositional music dominated by Muslim and Muslim-identified immigrants, then surprised to learn from my general nosing around that hip-hop of every sort is a much bigger deal in France than in the U.K. or anywhere else besides America. Perhaps prodded by the Senegalese-born rapper's sometime collaborator Missy Elliott, Elektra has taken a flier on Cinquieme As (Fifth Ace), the latest by Solaar, a violence-hating, million-selling girl magnet who's barely described in Global Noise. Although the beats continue to go down too easy, they have rather more body than those on Paradisiaque, and when I read along or just concentrate, I can appreciate his flow—but still not its verbal components, including what insults it does or doesn't visit on la belle langue. Musically, I'm more taken with what little I've heard of Marseilles's Sicilian-led, all-Muslim, multiethnic IAM. But even were I to beef up my spoken French, their slang and accents would be beyond me.

So it's no surprise that my favorite non-English rap album to date is the Sahel-generated Africa Raps comp Michaelangelo Matos pumps elsewhere in this section. Whatever localism's undeniable validity and just rewards, black people have always been best at taking it worldwide. Be it nurture or nature, rhythm is at the forefront of their musical skills—on Africa Raps, the goddamn Ousmane Sembène dialogue sample has some funk—and also at the forefront of hip-hop. So it's striking that African hip-hop is ignored in Global Noise. Equally striking is a half-articulated anti-essentialist resentment of the African American claim on hip-hop. It's as if Jay-Z, to choose our biggest willie, is merely a point man for cultural imperialism—although the perp actually named is that tireless profit taker and hip-hop ambassador Chuck D, who's criticized for disdaining white fans in Bilbao and white rappers in Sydney.

Rapping French girl-magnet MC Solaar
photo: Phillippe Bordas
Rapping French girl-magnet MC Solaar

Maybe that's what Jay-Z gets for rapping over a cushier rhythm bed than Europeans can manage at a five-star hotel. Maybe it's what Chuck D deserves for agitating hearts whose pain he can't comprehend. But what if the dislocated continuity that animates each rapper's deep funk fills a need that upbeat electro cannot? What if it's such a vivid aural metaphor for all attempts to re-create community in this undoing world that no roots rap however authentic can replace it? What if it's just better music? What happens to the local then?

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