In 2010 the Belgian artist Paul Van Haver conquered the world with his song “Alors on danse” under the name Stromae. It went as far that even Kanye West wanted make a remix of the song. For his sophomore album, Racine Carrée (Square Root), Stromae had set very high standards for himself.
In May 2013 Stromae released a new single, “Papaoutai” (Papa où-t’es or ‘Daddy, where are you’), which was an instant Belgian hit. The song is a great mix of African beats with the typical Stromae piano house. It is extremely catchy and danceable, but still distinguishable in the large volumes of electronic music that come our way.
Little over a week later, a video of a drunken Stromae wandering the streets of Brussels went viral. After a few days it however was revealed that this was staged to gather footage for the video of a second single, “Formidable”, a song about a drunkard falling in love with a beautiful woman. The song beautifully mixes the melancholy of Belgian chansonier Jacques Brel with some drum-‘n-bass influences. The drama in the song creates an intimate feel to this dance track.
Both “Papaoutai” and “Formidable” are beautiful pearls and Racine Carrée was highly anticipated because of them. Luckily, Stromae knows how to juice up an album and Racine Carrée is simply a collection of gems. Song after song Stromae shows his versatility while at the same time establishing a strong Stromae sound. The self-branding by his characteristic chansonier vocals with the rich dance and hiphop influences make him stand out in a vast amount of artists.
Further highlights – and it is very difficult to choose because the whole album is awesome – are “Ta Fête”, which was selected as the song for the Belgian national soccer team during the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brasil, “Bâtard” and “Sommeil.” Especially the anthem feel of that latter song in a Euro Dance jacket made us have it on repeat for quite a bit. Volume on 10 and just getting carried away by a beautiful beat and a new life soundtrack.
Stromae further distinguishes himself from tons of other dance and hiphop artists (and artists in general for that matter) by his engaged but at the same time poetical lyrics. The most cited lines of the whole album are without doubt ‘Tout le monde sait comment on fait les bébés / Mais personne sait comment on fait des papas’ (Everyone knows how to make babies / But no one knows how to make dads) in the song “Papaoutai”, a song that addresses the dangers of absent fathers.
With “Carmen” Stromae not only takes the strong and recognisable music of George Bizet’s famous opera, but he also contextualises its story and compares love with the attachment to social media. “Humain à l’eau” (Man Overboard) addresses a strong, highly educated and rich population and takes the perspective of the weaker – the declining nature, the third world country and the non-whites – and calls for a less dominant attitude and genuine empathy. The appeal in this song is already expressed by its title; “Humain à l’eau” also sounds like “humain allô” – as in: “hello, humanity, what are you doing?”
“Moules Frites” talks about how much Paulo likes mussels and fries (a Belgian national dish), but without the fries or the mayo we Belgians put on our fries.* In an almost offensively sarcastic way – supported by a light tune – Stromae address that guys (stereotyped by Paulo) like to brag about their appetite for sex, and in doing this are reducing women to their genitals (the mussel). Stromae continue to tell Paulo’s story and how his focus on sex got him a deadly STD. In an interview with Sarah Grant, Stromae explains the feminist edge in the song:
[“Moules Frites” is] supposed to be a reversal of the Gainsbourg song “Les Sucettes.” I wanted to make fun of how men love sex and say, like, pay attention to your penis, man! It could kill you! (Laughs) My song is a bit more rumba-influenced, but the melody is almost exactly the same. I always thought that Gainsbourg’s song was unfair for her.
Stromae’s often rather straightforward approach to problems in life could offend several listeners – that is: those who understand French or are willing to look for translations. However, I believe that this is only the result of a shallow reading of his lyrics. At heart, Stromae has a lot to teach us about voicing up a genuine love for humanity and the rest of creation.
Racine Carrée is an incredibly versatile album that combines dozens of musical influences into a strong and cohesive whole. Both musically and lyrically Stromae is the maestro with a twist his artist name suggests. He is a musical genius and Racine Carrée is in my opinion the better album to his debut, Cheese.
I loved Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories but I believe it is rightfully so that in 2013 Racine Carrée left that album behind itself in the charts and became the bestselling record of the year. By the end of 2013 Racine Carrée was sold over a million times in only four months (Adèle’s 21 took eleven months in 2011 and was the previous artist to get the magical sales number).
Stromae is a great artist and I hope his following album will blow our minds even more. Let’s hope we do not have to wait another three years. I am both thrilled and proud that in Stromae Belgium has a new and modern Jacques Brel; a great export product that shows what our tiny country has to offer. Apart from the best beer in the world, great chocolate, waffles, and social security.
Stromae – Racine Carrée (Mosaert, 2013)
*The famous scene in Pulp Fiction should have been Vincent Vega talking about Belgian mayonnaise, not the lesser Dutch equivalent.