The most recent full album by Belgian artist Paul Van Haver, or Stromae.
Racine Carrée. Square root. And in the mathematical fashion of a genius, Stromae delivers his latest collection with biting precision, cohesion, and a little bit of madness. His stage name is a neat refashioning of the orchestral title, maestro, and Stromae is indeed the head of his art. Known for his precise, clean attire and pastel colors, such as those that dominate the music video of one song, “Papaoutai,” Stromae is all-creative, spontaneous while constricted, contracted in bursts of passion and method. The French-speaking album is colored with a worldview grippingly unsugarcoated, unfazed, that might be hard at first to swallow, but still raw with truth about the lives we live.
At once Stromae is vicious and snarling, mighty and resolute, then vulnerable and terribly lonely. He is able to build a persona within several minutes, and then another, until it’s unclear which maestro is conducting the orchestra. In “Formidable,” a viral favorite, Stromae embodies a drunk, dumped man wandering the street while spouting bitter life advice to passerby. In the music video, literally; it was shot in public with ignorant bystanders, his startling shouts even drawing the attention of the police. The people he meets in the song create a narrative of their own: first, he meets a young woman who hurries away as soon as he says he was dumped for his infertility; then a young man, swaggering about with his brand new marriage ring; and finally a young boy, mistaken for a girl, who blushes when Stromae delivers crushing lines about the reality of marriage. Every song is a jewel, fully formed. Stromae sings with purpose, his songs loaded with barbed messages concrete and oblique. “Quand C’est” is a horror track, where quand c’est?, or when is it? When will it be? is hollowly echoed with cancer, cancer in English as well, which have similar sounds in French. Stromae relays a disturbing narrative of a man whose family has already blossomed with the disease, and now sees cancer as an enemy, lurking in the shadows, choosing where to strike next. The man’s relationship with the illness is bracingly honest, as Stromae notes sarcastically the warning on cigarettes, Fumer tue, or Smoking kills, yet Mais tu m’aides, But you help me. There’s the song “Tous Les Mêmes,” a thrillingly take on the battle of the sexes, as Stromae slides fluidly between man and woman. “Carmen” is about the self-stuffed millennials with a neck crick from looking at their phones too long, and “Bâtard” is a politically-charged epic that flips relentlessly between the two sides of politics today. It also recognizes Stromae as Ni l’un ni l’autre, Not one or the other, who hails himself from mixed Rwandan and Belgian heritage. In the end, the song crowns those who shy away from taking a stance as bâtards, bastards, who were, and will remain.
There’s so much stuff in each song, so much art and so much vile, vicious truth it’s intoxicating just to watch. Even if you aren’t studying French, the album is worth the time. Like the diversity of Kpop fans, who don’t all listen for the Korean, there’s the music--you’ve probably already heard “Papaoutai” on the radio, the addictive, sensational single that describes the universal search for father figures. “Tous Les Mêmes” has a slinking beat, practically embodying the music video’s dark jewel colors, and “Batard” is raw, full of claps and shouts, appearing to pull more from his African heritage. For me, it can be hard to draw the line between what electronic music makes your head spin and what makes your heart sing. The maestro knows when to dial it back for more vocals and piano, like in “Formidable.” But all songs are fully danceable, like “Moules Frites,” and Stromae does dance.
It’s diverse. It’s shocking. It’s also slightly cynical, looking at you in the eye while satirizing all our silly little lives. Stromae’s Racine Carrée is, ironically, fully rounded. C’est la vie.