As a pure global force, hip-hop has traversed cultures and languages, inspiring a far-reaching base of fans and artists alike. Since the early ’90s hip-hop has been widespread in France, yet only a handful of these names have reached across the Atlantic and linked with their American counterparts. The most significant French rap group of the last two decades would likely be IAM, a five-rapper collective from Marseille, the country’s second largest city, who have been making music together since the late ’80s. IAM have been largely more successful than any other native rap artists in the States, with a number of collaborations with affiliates and members of the Wu-Tang Clan: “La Saga“ (Feat. Prodigal Sun), “Noble Art“ (Feat. Method Man and Red Man), and “Seul Face A Lui” (RZA and IAM). As well, MC Solaar (from Senegal, but still Francophone) teamed up the late great Guru on his Jazzmatazz, Vol.1 in 1993 with “Le Bien, Le Mal.”
Extracting the meaning of poetry isn’t solely limited to the native tongue. While the context may not be fully understood, the method and process is nearly universal, teaching lessons beyond limitations of language. That’s exactly what you have to do, as a native English speaker, when listening to most music in a foreign language, and especially a lyric-heavy genre like hip-hop. It’s about hearing the flows, beats, instrumentals, and samples. Being hyper aware of the musicality, the energy, and the feeling, before trying to dissect the lyricism. And when Rap Genius isn’t there to hold your hand, the mystery of meaning is vast.
Loweina Laurae, Hanao’s latest album, was released Feb. 21, 2013 on his official Bandcamp page. It starts off in heavy murmurs over bells and strings, shadowed by eerie, tragic noises. Hanao utilizes dark, minimalist samples, at times almost old ’30s-era soundtracks cut up and altered to enhance a beat. His voice comes quipped as well, through solemn and repetitive whispers. He waits half way through the opener, “Qui envoie les mouches,” to drop a deep, bass-heavy drum track, laid behind thick, somber piano tones to lace his voice over.
Hanao makes clear he’s akin to what hip-hop became in 2013 while maintaining subtle references to his eclectic class of influences: ’90s hip-hop all-stars, Billy Holiday, ’50s/’60s French poet Leo Ferre, comics, and cinema. With crisp tracks like “Faut bien qu’ils brillent” (Translate: They must shine well) or “Violence,” Hanao exhibits an ability to creating classically tight hip-hop. On “Kick, Snare, Bien” he reaches back to a tradition of boom bap drum and bass and wobbly turntable synth melodies to produce a mesmerizing track.
Clear jazz and funk elements are evident all over Loweina Laurae. Brilliantly crafted, “Chasse & Peche” (translation: Fishing & Hunting) is weighed by a playful jazz piano, bass guitar, and light drums. You can hear rhythmic maracas and birds chirping in the back. His verses unravel gradually but by the end he spits quick and swiftly. “Chasse & Peche” is also fitted with a stellar and hilarious music video, posted above, showing Hanao playing “Grand Theft Auto,” eating Doritos in a bathtub, watering plants with vodka, checking Facebook, and window-shopping, among other things. Another intriguing track is “Steroide man,” infused with light, minimalist free jazz, scattered percussion, and wonderful sporadic horns. With the controlled chaos that is free jazz in the background, Hanao contradicts staying clean and calculated, delivering impressive and stable bars.
Many critics of his first album mentioned his tendency to produce minimal instrumentals that lend his vocals to a more slam poetic style of delivery. This poetic tendency is still prevalent within many of the tracks on Loweina Laurae. On “Il a même pas d’blague” (translation: It isn’t the same as a joke), considered as an interlude, Hanao rhymes over down pouring rain, soft simplistic strings, drums, and a rising and falling piano. He lets rhymes slip out of his mouth with a laid-back, exhausted passion in his voice. “Prelude a la violence” also exhibits an experimental poetic rhetoric. With little to no discernable beat or rhythm, Hanao lays voice over chopped and plucked strings and airy sounds. It’s experimental music managed just gently enough to become a rap instrumental.
Lyrical content aside, as Anglophone natives, foreign to the language, this album creates an incredible landscape flooded with unknown darkness and obscurity. But, for perspective on the overall theme of the album, here’s a quote from Hanao published by a Brussels-based popular culture magazine, Moustique:
“Although not a hard concept, “Loweina Lauraze” comes up regularly on the theme of the city. Everything being attracted by megacities, the human being is not made to live long in such an environment. Protagonists of my songs are often trapped in loneliness and facing urban violence. Not that that spreads in the columns of various facts, but a more subtle violence of heavy stress, pressure and very strict patterns eventually leaving little room personal development.” (Translated)
He’s creeping through a city of loneliness and trying to personify that environment. There is a voice of a trouble and trapped urban soul weaving through streets and violence. It’s amazing how in line that narrative is with a hip-hop tradition of hood lives and sinister cityscapes. Hanao’s tragic rap offerings are complex and stapled. At 30 years old he’s poised and calculated with his beats, rhymes, and conscious, eliciting a history far beyond that of hip-hop or any one of his many influences. He is scooping together far-reaching competing characteristics and sculpting them into wonderfully ambivalent movements. Hanao is able to mesh many creative, musical elements and produce progressive and innovative hip-hop.