Less than a year after nearly topping the French charts with his third album, À l'Ombre du Show Business (2008), Kery James returned with another, Réel, something of a return to form for the hardcore rapper. Known for expressing his deepest emotions and thoughts, James rose to fame in the pioneering French rap group Idéal J during the '90s, but left the rap scene for a while after his close friend was murdered by gunfire in 1999. During his sabbatical he turned toward religion and found comfort. When he returned to rap, he embarked on a solo career and made his full-length debut with Si C'Était à Refaire (2002), a landmark album widely hailed as a classic. James laid his soul bare on the album, going so far as to include a song titled "28 Décembre 1977" (his birthdate). After his classic debut, he took his time between albums, waiting three years before releasing his second full-length effort, Ma Vérité (2005), and another three years before releasing his third, À l'Ombre du Show Business. To some fans, À l'Ombre du Show Business was a shameful effort, a star-studded bid for crossover success that included collaborations with R&B singers like Zaho and Vitaa, Armenian-French legend Charles Aznavour, and other "show business" people who had no business appearing as featured guests on a Kery James album. In spite of the criticism, À l'Ombre du Show Business broadened James' fan base considerably and moved him further into the French rap mainstream. With Réel, however, James pushes back against the mainstream, releasing a fairly straightforward hardcore rap album that does away with all the excess of its predecessor. The album-opening track, "Le Retour du Rap Français," says as much with its title, and at nearly seven minutes in length, it's a hard-hitting start to the album that should delight longtime fans hoping to hear James return to form. The third song, "Je Représente," is another highlight that helps get the album off to a promising start. Not until the sixth track, "Le Prix de la Vérité," is there a featured guest, Médine, a fellow Muslim rapper with a political agenda. With his first album titled 11 Septembre (2004), and his second, Jihad (2005), Médine is a far cry from the R&B singers featured on James' previous album. While purists will find plenty to enjoy on Réel, the mainstream rap fans who were drawn to À l'Ombre du Show Business might be put off by this album. Not only does James return to form and go it alone for much of the album, the songs tend to carry on at length, with several hovering around the seven-minute mark, with one topping nine, and none clocking in at less than four minutes; moreover, the hooks aren't especially catchy, they're more often lyrical refrains than radio-ready singalongs. Released less than a year after its predecessor, whereas prior albums were released three years apart, Réel can be taken as the flipside of À l'Ombre du Show Business, a hardcore offering for purists and a difficult challenge for newly won-over fans.
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AllMusic Review by Jason Birchmeier
feat: Le Rat Luciano