Musicians treasure creative freedom, and in interviews, it’s not uncommon for them to voice a warning: “Don’t put my art in a box.” But MHD, the platinum-selling French rapper of Senegalese and Guinean descent, knows that a box can be valuable, as long as it’s packaged nicely and slapped with a big, bright label.
Case in point: In September 2015, the rapper uploaded a video titled “Afro Trap Part 1” to YouTube. The track had little in common with trap as it is conceived by American or Latin rappers — there were no traces of Atlanta hip-hop in this music’s DNA. Instead, MHD delivered blustery raps over an instrumental from the Nigerian group P-Square, who specialized in yearning, polyrhythmic pop songs. The video looked like it cost almost nothing to make, and it was full of kids from MHD’s neighborhood rapping excitedly — to the point where they sometimes flubbed their lines — and dancing joyously.
No one cared that this trap variant was not like the others; the reception to “Afro Trap Part 1” was as rapturous in other French cities as it was in MHD’s hometown of Paris. He followed the first clip with nine sequels. The label proved impossible to resist, and MHD was appointed afro-trap’s commander-in-chief; his self-titled debut album sold over 200,000 copies, a serious number in France. The perennial-international-dabbler Diplo put out an MHD remix package titled Afro Trap.
The rapper’s new album 19 refines the ideas from MHD. The hooks are more distilled. The guitars gurgle and glitter, playing intricate, winding patterns that sometimes bring to mind other African musical styles like Coupé-Décalé, a form popular in Côte d’Ivoire and its diasporic communities. The slim, propulsive drumming on 19 frequently points elsewhere, to the 3-2 pattern found in the popular Nigerian export afrobeats. That’s especially true on a pair of tracks where Nigerian stars Yemi Alade and Wizkid make guest appearances.
On “Papale?”, one of 19‘s most exuberant moments, MHD raps in double time, but the kick drum refuses to adjust its speed to match his. Guitars circle out and double back, intertwining and drifting apart. When the chorus arrives, that drum is finally let loose, and it bounds forward like a sprinter unleashed by the starter gun. “Papale?” ends with a beautiful, extended guitar solo, a rarity on a rap album — or really, any album that is expected to sell copies.
It should be said that there are not a lot of twists on this 19-track album, and in the not-too-distant future, that Afro-trap label may begin to seem like a drag, a constraint instead of a launching pad. But that’s a concern for a third album.