Dean Van Nguyen is the Jean-Luc Godard of French Rap criticism.
A city is made up of numerous moving parts, only one or two of which can ever be captured by a 50 cent postcard. Picture Paris, the most fabled city on the planet. A creative paradise to artistic luminaries as wide-ranging as Ernest Hemmingway, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Saul Williams. The fashion capital of the world. This sprawling French cosmopolis means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, many of whom will never get to report their own story from within the depths of the town’s hidden cavities.
Beneath the beauty and the brilliance lie gritty suburbs marred by urban mismanagement, police brutality, and poisonous racial tensions that are too often pushed to the periphery of the world’s view. Strolling around the central tourist traps, it’s hard to believe that this is the same city that filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz laid bare on his 1995 classic La Haine, a rough piece of hip-hop cinema that follows three young friends and their struggle to survive in the hard-as-nails Paris housing projects.
Recent decades have seen France become increasingly diverse as migrants have arrived from former French colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In Paris, minorities often live in impoverished suburban slums stacked on the peripheries. And though officially secular, the government has frequently struggled to adopt its Muslim citizens. As the academic Trica Danielle Keaton explained in her 2006 book Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion, young Muslims are “typecast as violent delinquents, feared as terrorists in the making, and objectified as criminals—the fodder of prisons and the targets of racial profiling, secular laws, and curfews that apply solely to their neighbourhoods.” Recent terrorist attacks only further the divide.
Just as hip-hop in the US was once described as “the Black CNN,” French rappers have long aired visceral messages on race relations, ethnic identity and police brutality. Like the Jamaican immigrants who gave birth to hip-hop within the burning Bronx of the 1970s, the second and third generation children of North Africans, West Africans and ethnic Arabs have been at the forefront of cutting the world’s most credible rap music beyond the nation that created the art form.
Hip-hop rarely travels well. Go outside its spiritual homes of New York, Cali, the Dirty South, plus a few other hardcore hubs, and it’s hard to find a rich body of worthwhile music. Discount Drake and Americans aren’t minded to excavate other regions of the world when it comes to piling up mixtapes to spin.
France, however, is one of the few nations to build their own self-sustaining rap scene. The French love affair with the genre goes all the way back in 1982, when gods like Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, and the Rock Steady Crew touched down in Paris for the New York City Rap Tour. It’s a romance that has burned passionately ever since as homegrown MCs have continuously left their own distinct imprint. The vocals ticks that make French such a silky language on the ear can translate into some killer flows for those who can harness it correctly.
There’s something here for everyone too, from the poetic lyricism and complex flows of MC Solaar, to the glitzy pop-rap of Black M, to the knuckle-dusting gangster posturing of Suprême NTM. Pioneering Marseille collective IAM have a long history of collaborating with the Wu-Tang Clan, tangibly enforcing the New York to France link. But while the scene has lifted huge chunks from its American counterparts, the best French rappers don’t simply mimic, but rather add their own identities, backgrounds, and motivations into the mix.
2015 saw the siblings release two albums, Que La Famille and Le Mondo Chico, and they followed them up last September with Dans la Legend. All highlight PNL’s gritty stylings. Auto-tune- soaked vocals glide on top of spacey, hollowed-out beats. N.O.S. and Ademo lean into their lyrics in a kind of half-rapped, half sung flow, spitting out their syllables with a forceful thud. This is grim, hard as nails music—think the darkest corner of Chicago drill mixed with Clams Casino’s own brand of cloud rap and you’re almost there.
Ademo and N.O.S (real names: Tarik and Nabil Andrieu) rarely do interviews and instead rely on the power of internet to propel their success. The music video for “Le Monde ou Rien” sits on 60 million views at time of writing. It’s just one in a string of PNL clips to scorch social media, helping them foster an already feverish fan base.
There’s a forbidding, synthetic beauty to PNL’s orchestration. This is headphone music that slithers up your ear and into the deepest crevices of your cerebrum, their voices echoing through the windmills of your mind like a distant shriek you can’t quite turn away from.
Lyrically, N.O.S. and Ademo talk the street, youth, youths on the street, escape dreams, the social gap between the haves and the have-nots, depression, and the violence of hope. Their uninviting, impactful and wholly cinematic videos—often shot around their local neighborhood, starring friends in leading roles—emphasize the harshness of their surroundings. The clip for “PTQS (Plus Tony que Sosa),” for instance, sees images of the Eiffel Tower blended with shots of car jackings and violent gang run-ins, laying bare the bleaker side of the Parisian dream.
But you don’t need a handle on the French language to enjoy this music. PNL’s concrete bars have universal resonance, their voices just adding another component to arrangements that cut through the language barrier like a shotgun slug through a light aluminum panel. This might not be the side of Paris their tourist office wants you to see, but it’s one you can’t easily turn away from.