It was the end of summer, and I was still enamored of the French soccer team after their victory at the World Cup. Instagram knew this already, because I had started following French soccer players with a vengeance, and its algorithms predicted that French rap, favored by some of the players, was naturally the next step. It showed me a few clips of MHD, and I thought, go on then.
MHD, a rapper from Paris’s 19th arrondissement, is often called the Prince of Afrotrap, a style he coined, but the title track off his new album, “XIX”, doesn’t have the signature propulsive beat and hard-edged bravado that made him a sensation. It doesn’t need to.
A tribute to his neighborhood and his youth, “XIX” pairs MHD’s vivid, mercurial raps with an expressive piano line, and from the soft, almost hymn-like “palaloum, palaloum” that sings us in, it hides neither his musical ambition nor his virtuosic skills. The song is deceptively simple; when MHD performed an acoustic version on a French talk show, his rich, world-weary voice was accompanied only by a piano and a djembe, and the result was no less captivating.
The video for “XIX”, in a candid acknowledgement of MHD’s international appeal, is subtitled in six languages, which is how I, speaking no French, am able to appreciate MHD’s lyrics:
“Conakry’s in my blood, Dakar’s in my blood / I don’t forget my roots, that’s why the beat is bouncing” (1) and
“Life’s gone by quickly, it saw me, it didn’t wait for me” (2).
Yet even with the multilingual accommodations, “XIX” maintains an air of opacity like all the best songs — maybe a lost-in-translation nuance, maybe a kind of authorial license — something that pulls you to it but doesn’t let you get too close, let you figure it out.
Falling in love with a new song is not so different from the real thing: for a time — days, weeks, months if you are lucky — the beloved is the whole of your world. I’ve been playing “XIX” on repeat for weeks now, soaking in its texture and disentangling its layers. Last weekend, still warm though it was October, I went for a swim, and under water, what pulsed in my ears was MHD’s voice: “Pas besoin de réconfort, pas besoin de nouveaux amis” (3). I swam faster then, to listen to the song again.
(1) Better in French, because it rhymes: “Conakry c’est dans l’sang, DKR c’est dans l’sang / J’oublie pas mes raciness c’est pour ça qu’le rythme est dansant”
(2) “La vie est passé vite, elle m’a regardé, elle m’a pas attendu”
(3) “No need for reassurances, no need for new friends”
(Song recommendation by Mingpei Li)