Youssoupha is an expat from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has been studying and rapping in and around Paris for the last several years. He's getting ready to drop his first solo album in April, entitled Négritude. I'm expecting a feast of beats and brilliance from that record thanks to this frightfully bold apéritif. When I first picked up Eternel Recommencement, a sampler comp, I was worried it was going to be a flimsy cash-grab; instead, it's the most thought-out and moving hip-hop I have listened to in awhile. The sequencing, artwork, and production all cohere to bolster the complex thesis Youssoupha imparts in 50 lean minutes. (Yes, this record has a thesis! Man rhymes the word "plebiscite." This is serious business.)
In trying to escape the political machinations of his home country, Youssoupha arrived in France only to become embroiled in a new politico-racial quagmire. To express it all, he turns to hip hop, a genre he knows is rigged with internal redundancies: cliché tropes, loops, samples, and even rhymes themselves (words that start differently but end up in the same phonic place) are all ways that hip hop repeats itself and can handcuff MCs. But Souph knows they're also the tools of originality: by embracing the intrinsic sameness, he transcends it throughout the record. He shows that "Eternel Recommencement" (Forever Starting Again) can be a destiny of both doom and hope at the same time.
"Apologie de la Rue" opens with guns cocking and a badass, bomb(t)astic orchestral hook that Youssoupha matches with the delivery of some indomitable verses. This track slays. I will gladly pay to hear it again on Négritude. After this emphatic intro, Youssoupha gets his racial politics on the table right quick. "Touba" is a mouthful of the dueling contradictions he uses to butter his French bread. He holds forth on the difficulties of approaching "the other" in a way that would make Levinas and Public Enemy proud.
The three tracks at the center of the album are its heart, pulsing oxygen-rich ideas that cycle through the rest of it. On "Babylone Zoo," Souph pops some of his most impressive lyrics over a Middle Eastern beat jacked from Jay-Z. He dies on "Youssoupha est Mort," only to come back to life in the next track, "Eternel Recommencement," where we finally crash into his subtle thesis. He tells us that in "hip hop we describe the same problems, we denounce the problems, song after song, album after album." Standing alone, this is not a remarkable observation. But Youssoupha uses it as both the mission statement and antithesis of his work, weaving sticky strings of rhymes through and around it before he sucks its blood and comes out stronger. Although he believes hip hop is doomed to repeat itself, Souph still exhorts MCs to "respect their message as a vehicle." This comes amidst some spitfire verses kindling over a piano arpeggio that is looped throughout the whole track until we hear the rewinding of a cassette and the track starting again from the very beginning. Restarts piled on top of restarts in the titular track of an album of restarts. Brilliant, I say.
Nearly every track offers moments like this, moments that force you to watch Souph wed, annul, and remarry pairs like death and life, repetition and originality, black and white, street and school. His observations and recommendations flow boldly but never pedantically. Appreciating all this is tough when the rhymes are in a foreign language, but you can't miss the fistfuls of mean hooks accenting a voice (physical / authorial) that's clotted with conscience and charisma. That was enough to bring me back after the first listen, when I understood hardly anything he was saying. With the banlieus recently burning, Sarkozy looking to expel foreigners, and French rappers like Monsieur R (a friend of Youssoupha's) possibly facing criminal investigation thanks to their lyrics, I think this may be one of the most timely releases around. Prepare for the coup, cousin. Youssoupha's just getting started (again).
1. Apologie de la Rue
3. La Rage en Featuring
4. Babylone Zoo
5. Youssoupha est Mort
6. Eternel Recommencement
7. Lyriciste Bantu (Original MC)
9. Ce Rap va m'Perdre
10. Post Scriptum