Le Flow 2 – French Hip Hop Avant Garde

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Album Review by Mark Bayross

I’m not sure about “avant garde” – many of the artists featured here are no strangers to the French charts. Nonetheless, the second instalment of the FLOW series, a collection of works by the Gallic hip-hop élite, is quite a stormer.

Some of the artists featured on the first LE FLOW reappear here, alongside some big names in French rap and even a couple of US stars. After the scratch overload of DJ POSKA’s ‘Intro’, the million-selling Marseilles troupe IAM serve up the disco funk of ‘Independenza’ – not a million miles from the music to some cool 70s French cop show and a dynamic way to kick off the album.

PRODIGE NAMOR and ASSASSIN’s ‘Mission’ continues laying on the strings and scratches, while the ragga-inflected ‘Le Show’ from the possibly accurately-named NUTTER slows the pace down with stripped-down, stoned beats. Likewise, DOC GYNECO’s disparaging ‘L’Homme Qui Ne Valait Pas 10 Centimes’ is a slow-burn of Latin horns, church organ and gospel choirs.

A number of tracks push the sonic boundaries of rap even further than their US counterparts sometimes dare, especially BIG RED’s ‘Red-Emption’, which morphs a swirling hummed vocal to a phat beat to create a backdrop that’s both funky and truly original.

Also of note on the album is a cut from the highly controversial Supreme NTM, the Parisian gangsta rappers who have incensed the authorities to Ice-T-like levels, even to the point of serving time at the pleasure of Le Président for, well, just not behaving. For a group whose name stands for “Nique Ta Mère” (or “Fuck Your Mother”), I guess that’s not too surprising. Their contribution, “Ma Benz”, is a chunk of dirty funk, served up with appropriately gruff vocals, but it’s nothing worth going to jail over.

After gangster rap, another recent trend has been the rise of what I’ll call “kung-fu rap”, mainly spearheaded by New York’s Wu-Tang Clan. One of their number, RZA, lends his vocals to ARSENIK’s ‘Shaolin, 6ème Chaudron’, although they are upstaged by the over-the-top goth rap of SAIAN SUPA CREW’s appropriately-named ‘Darkness’. The menace is mirrored by OXMO PUCCINO & PASSI’s ‘Nautilus: Black December’, which is a satisfyingly nasty slab of expletive-filled trip hop.

Inevitably, lurking among this compilation’s 18 tracks, you are going to find a few duds. Step forward ALLIANCE ETHNIK, whose ‘Jam’ sounds decidedly as if it’s gone off, such is its cheesiness. The laid-back female r n’ b of LES NUBIANS’ ‘Makeda’ and MISSY ELLIOT’s ‘All N My Grill’ (included on account of its guest slot from MC Solaar) are intended to offer a contrast to the macho posturing of the other tracks, but they sound insipid and out-of-place in this company.

Of course, the ability to understand French is a bit of a prerequisite for deriving any meaning from the assorted urban poetry showcased here, although some English does creep into many of the tracks and the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean even makes an appearance on BIDEEW BOU BEES’ Afro-rap ‘Ndekete Yo’.

Nonetheless, non-francophones can still enjoy the beats and the rhythmic patter of the French language. It seems that France, a nation whose popular music has always been known for plumbing the depths of EUROTRASH-awfulness (have you heard Johnny Halliday?) has finally found a musical style of which it can be proud.

4 stars