Noir Desir

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Always one of the most thought-provoking, intelligent, and controversial rappers on the thriving French urban scene, 32-year-old MC Youssoupha Mabiki's last album became just as prominent in the courts as it did in the charts, thanks to a contentious track which many felt appeared to issue a death threat against political journalist Eric Zemmour. Judging by his third studio album, Noir Desir, the French-Congolese star, who subsequently lost the lawsuit filed by the writer, hasn't let the furor dampen his free-wheeling spirit. Indeed, the follow-up to 2009's Sur Les Chemins du Retour is arguably even more defiant, tackling the aforementioned trial head on with "Menace de Mort," a clattering percussive number based on a neo-classical loop more suited to a period drama, while also offering his own unique perspectives on everything from the state of modern rap to social injustice. In lesser hands, the constant diatribes could become the only focal point, but Youssoupha's ear for melody and inventive genre-hopping production are just as strong as his outspoken beliefs. The acoustic flamenco of "L'Amour," the gospel-tinged "Viens," and the Bollywood-inspired "J'ai Change" set the eclectic tone immediately, and while there are the odd nods to U.S. contemporaries such as the Kanye West-esque dramatics of "Irreversible" and a Bruno Mars-style collaboration with German-Rwandan vocalist Corneilles on "Histoires Vraies," it's a record which largely refuses to pander to international audiences. The breezy rumba of "Les Disques de Mon Pere" and the Afrobeat folk of the title track pay respect to his heritage on collaborations with father Tabu Ley Rochereau and Congolese street band Staff Benda Bilili respectively, while the likes of the aggressive dubstep of "La Vie Est Belle" and the claustrophobic Gallic hip-hop of "B.A.O." prove he hasn't abandoned his street roots either. If he can avoid any legal ructions this time 'round, Noir Desir might be best remembered as the most impressive French hip-hop record of the year.

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