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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2001


MC Solaar: 'Cinquieme As (Fifth Ace)'

In order for something to be exotic, there must first be an accepted cultural standard. In the case of the music of MC Solaar (Claude M'Barali), a Senegalese musician who relocated to Paris in 1990 and has since become the best-selling Francophone rapper in the world, the standard is American hip-hop.

Having been feted by Gang Starr's Guru in his Jazzmatazz project and later showcased on several Stateside hip-hop compilations, Solaar eventually came under the production wing of DJ Jimmy Jay, a pioneer in the jazz-to-rap movement that swept NYC in the early '90s, but that was mostly played out by the time Solaar was initiated. Consequently, his rep in hip-hop's own backyard was that of a guy who rapped in a language the homies didn't get (though his few English tracks prove that his command of rhyme is more instinctual than linguistic), using samples they respected but no longer had much interest in. None of this mattered to his French-speaking fans throughout the world, but for better or worse (worse, probably), real hip-hop is only what goes down in New York or Los Angeles.

On his new album, "Cinquieme As (Fifth Ace)," Solaar uses the French production team of Alain J and Erik K-Roz, collectively known as the Black Rose Corporation, who dispense with the jazz, instead creating a thick gumbo of bass and choral voices that follow a more traditional pop R&B formula.

Recorded almost exclusively in New York with a handful of musicians and a trio of underground DJs, the album makes good on the pan-cultural claims that groups like Arrested Development tried to make with their music but didn't quite carry through on. Oddly, the cultures it channels are more European than African: flamenco on "Hasta La Vista Mi Amor," French pops on "La La La La" and even a humorous Russian-sounding basso chorus on the title cut. These diverse tidbits spotlight Solaar's sublime flow, which, since it's in French, is smoother than that of all those gangstas with their beloved regressive "k" sounds.

Even if, like me, you don't understand the language, the rhymes are delicious (nervosite/animosite; Pokemon/dingo comme) and the rhythmic play tantalizing. It would be impossible to imagine the complex counterpoint he achieves on the wondrously funky "Degats Collateraux" in any language other than French. The homies don't know what they're missing.

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