We were only there for three or four songs. It was enough. Last Thursday was one of those rare nights when Chris DeVille and I, the two Stereogum staffers who refuse to live in New York, were in the city anyway, splitting a hotel room the night before we jumped on a train up to the Basilica Soundscape Festival. We’d been at another show, and we’d left early. I’d read something about MHD, the French rapper who happened to be in town that night, and I’d gotten myself on the guest list for his show at the Playstation Theater, a neon-lit, personality-devoid Times Square venue. But we just walked right in. Nobody checked any lists for our names. It didn’t matter. The venue was mostly empty, just a few hundred people crowded near the stage. But those people were fired up — crowding around the stage, bellowing along with French lyrics, waving flags. The energy in the room wasn’t a New York rap-show energy, or at least it wasn’t anything like the energy at any of the New York rap shows I’ve been to over the years. Instead, it was a dancehall or soca energy — people from distant lands coming together in this city, celebrating each other, celebrating life. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
MHD, the guy at the center of all this, is a slight figure, a 24-year-old kid with his hair and goatee dyed blonde. If he was pissed off at seeing a room that was maybe a quarter full, he wasn’t showing it. Instead, he was all boundless energy, constantly moving, constantly yelling to the crowd, sometimes even speaking English. (To the person who wasn’t waving a lit-up phone when she was supposed to be waving a lit-up phone: “Is your phone low on battery?” It was a pretty good secondary-language burn.) MHD’s stage was crowded with friends and well-wishers, some of whom were recognizable from his videos, all of which have YouTube numbers in the tens of millions. He was a couple of nights into his first-ever American tour, and for a French rapper — for any French rapper, especially one who never raps in English — the mere fact of an American tour was a minor miracle. He knew it. He showed it.
Elsewhere in the world, MHD doesn’t play to crowds that small. In MHD’s French homeland, the self-titled debut album that he released last year hit #2 and eventually went double platinum. In Europe, he shows up in Adidas commercials. Both of MHD’s parents are African immigrants, and early this year, he performed in front of a packed stadium in his father’s homeland of Guinea. (MHD’s mother comes from Senegal, and as far as I know he hasn’t played any stadiums there yet.) Drake and Skepta and Stormzy are all fans, or at least they’re big enough fans to pose for Instagram pictures with MHD. And while he’s not the first French rapper to make headway in America, MHD is part of a very small list. There was MC Solaar, the ’90s superstar who worked with Guru on the first Jazzmatazz album. There was Saïan Supa Crew, the Paris collective who made a quick appearance on the Avalanches’ Since I Left You. There was TTC, the Ed Banger-affiliated club-rap libertine-goofball trio who I saw at the Knitting Factory maybe a decade ago and who I remember being pretty fun. More recently, there’s been PNL, the two ridiculously good-looking Algerian-Corsican brothers who make post-Drake sing-rap and who appear to be even more popular than MHD in France. They were supposed to play Coachella this year, but visa issues kept them out.
I’ll take MHD over any of them. MHD calls his style “Afro-trap.” It’s supposed to be a fusion of African music and trap, but there’s really almost no trap in there, at least not in the Gucci Mane/Waka Flocka Flame sense. (Maybe he means trap in, like, the Baauer sense?) Really, the music MHD makes is joyous, ebullient globalist dance-rap, music where you don’t have to understand more than the occasional word — “Un selfie!” “C’est la Champions League!” — to hear how he’s flexing. As a rapper, MHD is nimble and graceful. But without understanding the language, his real gifts are his hooks and his energy. His songs move. I haven’t been able to take them off repeat.
In recent years, two North American rap stars have made their biggest hits — “One Dance” for Drake, “Unforgettable” for French Montana — with songs that lean hard on Afrobeats, the exploding hybrid sound that’s been coming out of Nigeria in the past few years. Rap itself is incidental to both of those songs; Drake doesn’t rap on “One Dance,” and French’s verses on “Unforgettable” are nobody’s favorite things about that song. But a week-long YouTube dive into MHD has me thinking about what rap could do with the genre, especially in the hands of a rapper, like MHD, who grew up listening to both rap and African pop music. It also has me excited about the continuing possibilities of rap itself. There are whole worlds out there, entire sounds being birthed out of different fusions in different countries. And if you don’t happen to walk into the right club at the right minute, they might pass you by completely.
1. Post Malone – “Rockstar” (Feat. 21 Savage)
Sooner or later, all of us are going to have to confront the sad truth that we kind of like Post Malone. Imagine if anyone in a rock band was this passionate about being a rock star!
2. OMB Peezy – “Doin’ Bad” (Feat. YoungBoy Never Broke Again)
OMB Peezy is from Alabama, but he’s lived in Sacramento since he was 12. And in his self-assured, melodious honk, we can hear a near-perfect fusion of deep-South and Bay Area rap. His music just rolls. Watch this kid.
3. G-Worthy – “Never Miss”
I am going to have a hard time with the idea of Grimes’ half-brother being in a group with G Perico, the young king of old-school West Coast G-rap, but that’s my problem, not theirs. And anyway, this just goes. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two tracks in a row with absurdly smooth Cardo-produced beats. Right now, as I’m typing this, there might not be a more consistent rap producer working.
4. Westside Gunn & Conway – “RIP Bobby”
This is nothing but brutal, merciless shit-talk, which makes it a fitting tribute to the best bad-guy color commentator in professional wrestling history.
5. Juicy J – “Freaky” (Feat. A$AP Rocky & $uicideboy$)
The scummy white skate kids in $uicideboy$ have made their name by playing around with the sound of early Three 6 Mafia, so it’s fun that Juicy J, one of the architects of that sound, has tapped them to produce a whole lot of his new mixtape. And it’s even more fun to hear these grimy motherfuckers attempting to do strip-club rap with the guy who, more than anyone this side of Too $hort, defines the genre.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
I played The Beach Boys at this DJ battle yesterday and this happened👀👀👀👀 pic.twitter.com/1A38BahF1P
— Andrew Hypes (@AndrewHypes) September 18, 2017