I’ve been waiting the whole year for the release of Stromae’s Multitude. The whole year because I discovered him (in the Columbus sense) in late December in one of those magic moments when YouTube’s algorithm is actually useful, and I clicked on the newly released video for “L’Enfer.” And yes, waiting only two months for an album to drop is laughable compared to the fact Stromae’s longtime fans have been waiting 8 years, but like … can you honestly say January and February 2022 weren’t two years compacted into 59 days?
Not to mention that my cred as a music nerd is now in tatters for “only” finding out about him a few months ago.
Here’s your initiation: Stromae, who also goes by Paul Van Haver, is a Belgian singer, rapper, musician and overall renaissance man. Son to a white Belgian mother and a Rwandan Tutsi father, the first thing that will scare off most Americans other than the coastal elites is that he sings in French. But don’t worry! Most of his videos have subtitles in multiple languages. He is currently the most popular French-speaking act in the world, especially in Continental Europe, and he happens to be one of the few cases where the most popular music act in a language other than English is also, perhaps, its most interesting, creative, and wonderful representative. Insert cliché: That’s saying something because the French music scene is … how do I put it without offending my people and your people?
The only thing preventing French music from being the dominant force in Global music is that it’s in French.
Stromae broke into the global music scene in 2009 with his single “Alors on danse” (“And so we dance”), from his first album Cheese. Like every one of his songs, it encapsulates his talent for reappropriating the music zeitgeist as a trojan horse for lyrics full of irony, in this case, using the late 2000s and early 2010s wave of pop singles inspired by European New Beat and EDM, but to sing about alienation and economic turmoil. His sophomore LP, 2013’s Racine Carrée (“Square Root”) expanded his fusion of Electronica, African, and Latin American Rhythms and the lyrical traditions of the French chanson and Belgian icon Jacques Brel, and it became one of the biggest hits in French music over the last three decades.
I think the best way to catch up is to treat yourself to a full concert from the Racine Carrée tour, recorded in 2015. For the greatest of music acts, the studio recording is only a demo of the live versions. Just the part when he introduces the band is something you’ll listen on repeat. I also highly recommend watching the three parts mini-documentary on his career Stromae Seen By...
Since 2015, he has avoided the public eye after suffering from severe panic attacks. Fame is a motherf**ker, more so when having to walk a relatively strange tightrope for most French-speaking artists once they become stars on a global scale: the balance between the more in-depth, quality-over-quantity approach of press tours in French media (with the entire late-night show dedicated to the artist, with interviews interspersed with singing) against the demands, overexposure, and churning of the Hollywood-style press tour. If that’s trying enough for the most unchill celebrities out there, imagine how it is when your biggest hit (among a string of hits) happens to be about your distant relationship with your father, a father who was then murdered during the Rwandan genocide.
Tragedy producing creative genius is a toxic cliché that mixes up the cause and the effect and skips the process. Creativity is how you cope with the kind of things Stromae has experienced. The genius part is what he makes out of his unique position in the middle of everything: Son of a colonized subaltern, raised in the Metropolis, raised by a white mother (a subaltern also, in other ways), a French-speaker with a very Flemish last name, raised in Brussels, a city that is the in-between in a country split by language. The ultimate interstitial individual, which I think has endowed him with a unique sense of empathy. An empathy that turns his third album, Multitude, into the first piece of art that reflects and deals with the pandemic and the overall bleakness of the last decade.
Multitude is not necessarily an album about the pandemic, but the personal hell we’ve lived as a species transpires through it. Unlike any other rushed-out cultural artifact about the pandemic, Multitude transcends it not only because it deals with the perennial (isolation, depression, abuse, discrimination), but also because it projects itself forward. Or as forward as one is able to project oneself in these times. Because it is melancholy but also full of joy, the joy you have to push through as a survival mechanism.
“Santé” (literally “Health”, the word we use for “Cheers” in Romance languages), the first single, is a proper first single: A reflection of the album while standing out on its own. When I played it and I heard those familiar, chirpy ten-string notes from a charango, in the classic rhythm of Andes folklore and cumbia, I realized Stromae wanted to sing to everyone, for everyone. The song (whose style threw many anglo listeners for a spin) is a celebration of essential workers and the broken-hearted, all the people who have had little to celebrate. True to the rhetorical style French education embeds in its students, he takes on the role of a Karen in the second stanza.
There’s nothing better suited to portray the ambigüety of singing through pain than Latin American music. Upbeat tunes to sing about sad things is the foundation of so many of our styles, especially salsa an cumbia, and Stromae’s lyrics and baritone flow naturally with them. But the album is also infused with African rhythms and, in particular, Asian tunes, best exemplified in “Riez” (“Laugh”), about the outsized economic expectations (and conformism) in which capitalism has molded us.
The tracks deal with the strain and emotional asphyxiation of sharing a life with someone you no longer love (“C’est que du bonheur”), the fear of being lonely even it means being with someone you really don’t love (“La solassitude”), the human right to be depressed and exhausted (“Mauvaise journée”) against toxic positivity (“Bonne journée”), but also the self-asserting rush that is overcoming disease (“Invaincu”), whether mental or physical. Though less “danceable” than Racine Carrée, Multitude still manages to deliver both bops and vibes, beautiful music riding the ups and downs in much the same way we had to during months of lockdowns. But in a smart move, Stromae is not here delivering a message of optimism (the album closes with “Bonne journée”), instead, he offers something we need more: Empathy. The I see and I hear yous. This is best represented in how he sings “L’Enfer” during an interview for a news programme in France: From the same desk, to the audience:
What makes a song or an album “political”? In the anglo market, “political” is a catch-all moniker assigned to any music that is about “Something Wrong With The World,” regardless of how generic, banal or outright stupid it might be. But the personal is also political, and sometimes the times have such an imprint on certain cultural artifacts that they cannot be about anything but the political, even if its about something that seems unrelated or non-topical. The brilliance of Stromae is turning the inevitable looming shadow of our times into something people would be able to listen to 50 years from now, to process whatever they (well, also us) are going through. In that way, Multitude can also become a call to action, a reminder here, now and in the future of what alienation does, whether political, economic, or psychological, almost always connected.
Which is the perfect cue to sign off with the crown track of the LP: “Fils de joie” (“Son of joy”), a play on words with “fils de pute,” “son of a bitch,” which in Romance languages tends to be a stronger insult, depending on how you accentuate it. It’s a song about sex workers, sung from the point of view of the woman, her clients, her pimp and the police, while the choruses is from the perspective of her son. In Stromae’s words, it defends and humanizes the most vilified women, ones that have existed, exist and will forever exist. The video is … well, it also happens that Stromae is making music videos relevant again. A state funeral for a sex worker:
Multitude is available everywhere, but like, stream it on Tidal or Apple instead of you know where. Stromae is currently on a world tour, starting with Coachella. I doubt he’ll tour South America, so go in my jest.
Alberto Cox doesn’t actually know French yet, though he was raised in a Francophone household. Long story, ever-pending goal. But do you have any idea how hard it is to handle three types of /r/ sounds?
Header Image Source: Stromae Vevo