Madonna singing “La Vie en Rose” with a ukulele at her Madison Square Garden shows might have seemed something of a head-scratcher two weeks ago, but leave it to the cœur rebelle to have read the pop-music tea leaves. Last night Belgian rapper Stromae, while not the first Francophone to headline the Garden, became the first to top a bill at the hallowed venue while actually singing in French. (Close but no cigar, Charles Aznavour.) And when Stromae’s band broke out the ukulele on the sumptuous “Ave Cesaria,” it was hard not to think: Wow, Madonna is good.
The Latin and disco-inflected “Ave Cesaria” pays homage to another music queen: Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, nicknamed the “Barefoot Diva.” “Sacred Cesaria, what beautiful lesson of humility/Despite all those bottles of rum, all paths lead to dignity,” Stromae sang, pouring out a glass of wine as tribute to his idol. It would be the first of many thank-yous, mercis, and homages in his dazzling performance.
Stromae was born Paul van Haver in Brussels, raised by a single mother who fostered in him a love of travel and diverse cultures. Those qualities translate to his output: an eclectic mix of hip-hop, EDM, and world music served over a lyrical bed of self-consciousness, disillusionment, and social criticism. For that reason, Stromae has dubbed his own sound “suicide dance,” which intrigued the likes of Kanye West, who in 2009 opted to collaborate on a remix of Stromae’s hypnotic first hit, “Alors on Danse.”
Stromae’s 2013 breakthrough album, Racine Carrée (English: “square root”), announces his passion for roots music and his polyglot background as a Belgian with Rwandan blood. The “square” part relates to his gawky yet lovable persona, which occasioned a marketing field day via a string of videos poking fun at his nobody status in the United States: begging for attention on the cold streets of New York and cutting to footage of a European stadium with thousands of bouncing, screaming fans (including, the videos are sure to point out, Lorde and — yes — Madonna). So when Stromae parades around 34th Street, his reedy limbs jutting out of his pert shorts-and-collared-shirt ensemble, it’s as if he’s the Trix bunny, saying: Silly Americans, don’t you know who I am? Stromae, it would seem, has officially arrived stateside.
In his “square” uniform — knee socks, starched shorts, cardigan, and bow tie — Stromae kicked off with club bangers like the percussive “Ta Fête,” the disillusioned “Peace and Violence,” and the Caribbean-tinged “Tous les Mêmes,” a song he famously sings from a woman’s point of view.
“Moules Frites” was one of the many highlights, beginning with a small diatribe on Belgian pride (naturally involving jabs at the French). What Stromae didn’t take time to explain is that the singsongy chorus is a minefield of double entendres about the perils of promiscuity — because you never know who has an STD. For three minutes, we were all France Gall, the young woman who “didn’t know what she was singing” in Serge Gainsbourg’s “Les Sucettes.”
The most memorable songs of the night were Stromae’s lovesick anthems — easily identifiable to non–French speakers, because for those songs (“Te Quiero,” “Formidable”), he stops contorting his limbs in circus-freak power-poses, and trails across the stage with a forced gait, as if his entire body is besotted on some potent cocktail of regret, desire, and longing. On the stark “Formidable,” one of his greatest hits, stage fog made the iPhone flashlights swaying in the upper tiers look like stars shimmering in a dark sky. It felt like a dream realized for Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer-songwriter, who, like Stromae, was a self-professed square among his contemporaries: the mod yé-yé acts of the 1960s.
Opening act Janelle Monáe also invoked the past in her funky, time-warped set, which blasted off in the best way possible with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” transitioning into the defiant “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a strutting r&b jam from her 2013 album The Electric Lady.
The “hashtag-millennial” moment of the night came when the polished Monáe used a moment of reflection on social issues as a launchpad for her scintillating, let-me-hear-your-body-talk “Yoga.” Then she pivoted back into civil rights mode with the moving ballad “Cold War.”
Not unlike Monáe’s, Stromae’s song to “turn up” to is contemplative and intense. “Papaoutai,” his monster hit, is a trompe-oreilles: a nonsense word that becomes a meaningful phrase. In this case, it means “Papa, where are you?” The nonsense Stromae explores in the song is living with a shell of a paterfamilias: someone who is physically present but emotionally vacant. For the encore, Stromae appeared as a deranged Pinocchio and was wheeled onto the stage in a plastic encasement, dressed in his outfit from the music video, which has been viewed nearly 300 million times on YouTube.
It was clear Stromae didn’t want his big night to end, and neither did anyone else. He thanked at least eight minutes’ worth of people — if allowed, he probably would have shouted out to his third-grade teacher and mailman. Stromae and his backing band sang an impromptu — and charming — a cappella version of “Tous les Mêmes” before saying merci for about the millionth time. But judging by the ticket sales and general sense of euphoria permeating the Garden, it won’t be long before the inimitable Stromae returns for part deux.