The journey of MC Solaar goes way back to the “golden age” of hip-hop, the early 1990s. That fertile creative period saw such luminaries such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Gangstarr, with lyricism as smooth as their jazzy samples and beats, come to the forefront. MC Solaar, born Claude M’Barali in Senegal, was seen as a French ambassador of this style, as well as hip-hop in general, which was beginning to have mainstream appeal worldwide.
It didn’t really matter if you understood fran퀌_ais or not, if you knew anything about hip-hop you knew that Solaar had flow and rhyme and plenty of it. His sound was fresh for American as well as international ears because his jazzy productions from Jimmy Jay and Boom Bass were perfectly syncopated with his dope rhymes. Plus, he was rhyming in French! You definitely tell the signature Solaar sound when you heard it.
Over 10 years after his debut album Qui s퀌�me le vent r퀌�colte le tempo, Solaar returns with his latest album, and a new image, new sound and new expectations. The results are mixed. As much street cred as Solaar has earned throughout the years, there is still the perception that there is still an invisible obstacle he can’t get past. On Cinqui퀌�me As (Fifth Ace), Solaar seems to attempt to bridge some of those differences, much to the chagrin of fans of his classics such as Prose Combat.
What results is a very “American” hip-hop sounding record. We can call it distinctively “American” because hip-hop has truly gone worldwide in the past 10 years, thanks to those like Solaar. We no longer have a monopoly on hip-hop sounds, though after listening to this record, it’s apparent that our influence is still dominating, for better or worse.
It sounds as if Solaar is going for a more “mainstream” sound on this record, with Jay-Z-esque tracks like “La La La, La” and West Coast Dr. Dre-style productions such as “Si Je Meurs Ce Soir.” Supposedly, it is already the best-selling Solaar album ever in France.
However, it’s not all bad. “Arkansas” has a solemn string section over some orchestral plucks, but unfortunately doesn’t even last two minutes, and we’ve heard this before anyway. “Baby Love” is a sweet-as-cotton-candy song about a young girl. It is very pop, but in a rather feel-good way, with the ubiquitous vocoder making an appearance. “Playmate” is another song with a similar feel, and “Samedi Soir” is one of the strongest tracks on the album.
But the problem is not necessarily that the tracks on Cinqui퀌�me As are all of bad quality. Rather, it is that Cinqui퀌�me As makes Solaar sound more and more like everything else out there, especially other French artists such as NTM and Faf Larage, and American artists such as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, and all of those Timbaland-style productions. “D퀌�gts Collat퀌�raux,” “L’Aigle Ne Chasse Pas Les Mouches,” “Mouches,” and “RMI” sound like any other late ’90s hip-hop, but without the lyrical advantage that Solaar usually holds. Solaar’s lyrical stylings are evident in the histoire, or storytelling, style in “La Belle et La Bad Boy,” the smooth party flavor in “Leve-Toi et Rap,” and the self-reflection of “Cinquieme As” and “Les Colonies.” Yet one feels that there’s something lacking when compared to his previous efforts.
“Solaar Pleure” is even vocalized in two versions, one French, one English, which makes one cringe at the effects of the Americanization of everything. Is it no surprise that the French word for globalization is Americanisation? Apparently, Solaar has even been brushing up on his Spanish skills, and does a Spanish version of “Hasta La Vista” as well as a French one. This is almost appropriate, as he seems to be more concerned these days with giving the people what he thinks they want rather than giving them what they need.