Channeling his back catalogue, Greek mythology and abolitionist artwork proves successful for the veteran performer from Strasbourg.
A young black man with a gun? That’s a well-established menace to society, and a prominent character throughout the classic hip-hop narrative. But what about a young black man with a sword — an individual who not only is physically armed, but also carries the additional threat of being well-versed in the Islamic and Moorish heritage that this weapon symbolizes?
That premise provides the general structure for Le Jeune Noir à L’Épée (literally, The Young Black Man With A Sword), the sixth LP to be crafted by veteran rapper and spoken-word artist Abd al Malik. Born Régis Fayette-Mikano, he has long performed under the pseudonym that reflects his conversion to Islam and embracing of Muslim values. After over 20 years of critical acclaim, Abd al Malik has returned for his first release since 2015’s Scarifications, eager to prove that no rust has accumulated over his four-year hiatus.
Much of the storytelling that surfaces throughout Le Jeune Noir à L’Épée — named in honor of Pierre Puvis de Chavanne’s anti-slavery painting from 1850— represents extensions of some of Abd al Malik’s signature narratives. Lead single “La vida negra (Aquarius),” for instance, serves as a sequel to one of the author’s best-known songs, “Gibraltar.” That 2006 gem told the story of a young man making his way into Morocco so as to become better acquainted with his cultural heritage. This time around, he imagines what would happen if such a man were to make the same journey with his pregnant wife at his side, with all of the added responsibility of fatherhood brought upon him. The lyrics are enriched by repeated references to Greek mythology — Black Orpheus, Helen of Troy, and “Odysseus with dreadlocks, with Penelope at his side” are all likened to the married couple making this particular voyage.
Along with the straits of Gibraltar, Abd al Malik has repeatedly taken his listeners on tour of his native Strasbourg. He even directed an autobiographical film, Qu’Allah Bénisse la France, which emphasized how his upbringing in this Franco-German border town influenced him as a young, aspiring hip-hop artist. The song “Strasbourg” continues this trend. Abd al Malik recognizes that it is a city marred by class divide, as is a continuous problem throughout France’s urban regions. Yet he applauds the residents of his hometown for their remarkable efforts to overcome each other’s differences. “No matter whether they come from neighborhoods on the outskirts of town”— which, as in Paris, are defined by lower-class immigrant communities — “or from [the far richer neighborhoods] downtown, we all knew that we were equal,” he says in this love letter to his city.
Le Jeune Noir à L’Épée has been billed as a collaboration album with Abd al Malik’s younger brother, Matteo Falkone, who appears on four of the nine tracks here. Matteo has a deeper, more guttural voice than does Abd al Malik, and the two brothers’ vocal approaches complement each other well. On the title track, the two describe how everlasting struggle defines their own lives (“sans cesse, je luttais, je luttais”) and how they both “dream of being in museums, but not of being ‘museumized’.” It’s a thought-provoking line that evokes the album’s cover — which features both brothers standing by the statue of a rhinoceros featured in front of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, home to de Chavanne’s painting — while also evoking the desire to be remembered without coming across as too antiquated.
Meanwhile, Abd Al Malik’s wife Wallen keeps the album melodic, as well as well multilingual. “Mira, mira, mira la vida negra, negra, negra,” she sings in Spanish on “La Vida Negra (Aquarius),” a chorus that helps teleport the listener to this region on the southern tip of Spain that represents such an important rite of passage for Muslims across both Europe and Northern Africa. On “To Be or Not to Be,” Wallen contributes the album’s lone English-language lyric, asking “Am I alive or am I dead? Am I blue or am I red?” One may be tempted to choose “blue”— it’s the color of France’s recently-triumphant national soccer team, as Matteo reminds us with his rap moments later — but, as we learn in The Matrix, choosing red has its advantages as well. The rest of the song elaborates on this compelling premise.
While 44-year-old Abd Al Malik shines as a lyricist throughout his latest release, he saves his most poignant moment for last. “Eux” (Them) is as minimalist as it gets— no guests, no instrumentals, just the veteran spoken word artist crying out against xenophobia and discrimination throughout France and Europe, and making a plea for greater mutual understanding. “We must listen and share our thoughts,” he insists on this closing track. “We need to put ourselves in the place of others.” Whatever it takes until people no longer think in terms of “them,” but as “us.”
Le Jeune Noir à L’Épée is only a half-hour long, but its nine tracks represents a brisk trip through Abd Al Malik’s ever-impressive mind and demonstrate that, after all these years, he remains a skilled musician and a thoughtful social commentator. Put together, those identities are truly a double threat.
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📸 © Abd Al Malik