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This is Not Just Rap Music; This is Abd Al Malik

Will Hutchins writing for I V Y paris

Tdazvlot Back in November, the Alsatian ‘slammeur’ Abd Al Malik released Dante, the much anticipated follow-up to his multi award winning sophomore album Gibraltar. That album, released in 2024, with its often minimal and intriguing instrumentation took French rap to a whole new level, integrating jazz, African rhythms, hip-hop and classic French chanson.

While French hip-hop has all too often been disappointingly quick in taking the majority of its influences from across the Atlantic, Malik’s fresh approach sent the homegrown rap scene hurtling in an entirely new direction.

This Muslim musician looks within his own country and himself to make beautiful and interesting songs which deserve to have a section all to their own in your local Fnac.

Malik himself says that “le rap est ce que le rappeur en fait” - in his view, rap can be any type of music as long as it allows him to be at the forefront and provides a pedestal for his poetic paroles to shine, an idea which is often present on Gibraltar, especially on ‘La Gravité’ where his lyrics are accompanied simply by a piano. However, with Dante he has gone one, nay, two or three steps further.

Hailing from Strasbourg, born to Congolese parents, is forging a place for himself in not just French hip-hop history, but also classic French song writing history, and he’s achieving it by working with musicians the likes of which most hip-hop artists would never dream of considering. Inviting Jacques Brel’s pianist Gérard Jouannest to write 6 tracks and Alain Goraguer, the man who arranged Serge Gainsbourg’s early albums, to help produce part of the record was an audacious move but one that has evidently paid off.

The instrumentation on ‘Gilles écoute un disque de rap et fond en larmes’ sounds like it could have been  the soundtrack to a 90’s James Bond film in another life, while the title conveys Malik’s manifesto of intellectual and moving rap music. Jouannest and Gouraguer’s talent also stand out strongly on ‘C’est du lourd!’, the first single to be taken from the album, where their exquisite piano and strings underpin the rapper’s message of the necessity for integration in the Republic.

The most astonishing collaboration between the three though comes in the traditional Alsatian song form of ‘Conte Alsacien’ in which the Sufist slammer affirms his ‘french-ness’ by flowing in Alsatian dialect over the top of the strings, piano and, most gallicly of all, an accordion! 

The throwbacks to classic French Chanson remain even on tracks with which Jouannest and Gouraguer were not involved such as ‘La Marsellais’, the most classic of French song titles! Here, the piano and Brel style chorus are mixed with the most conventional hip-hop beat on the album reminiscent of the helicopter shot in La Haine when the camera flies above the banlieue while a Dj mixes Edith Piaf to a hip-hop beat. Old France meeting new France in the process.

Elsewhere on the album ‘Lorsqu’ils essayèrent’ grooves along to a funky 1970’S New York soul rhythm and ‘Raconte moi Madagh’, co-written and performed with his R’n’B star wife Wallen, which verges on electro indie is one of the most inventive and stand-out tracks on a record full of inventive and stand out tracks.

Constantly acclaimed as an intellectual and a man of ‘lettres’, Abd Al proves why on ‘Césaire (Brazzaville via Oujda)’ his homage to Aimé Césaire. Ordering the music to be cut towards the end of the song he launches into an unassisted recital of ‘Le Volcan’ by the négritude poet. And the clear literary reference of the title of the album refers to the great Italian writer’s switch from writing in Latin to writing in Tuscan in order to bring high art to the populous masses, something which this ambitious modern day poet is attempting to do in France.

If we follow Malik’s idea that rap music is simply the rapper, then Dante is rap music, and of course it is, but it is much, much more than that. It is the classic songs of 50’s and 60’s France. It is traditional music of the provinces. It is the sound of the North and West African colonies. It is the sound of jazz, of American hip-hop, of electro. In short, it is the sound of modern France.

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