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MHD - 19 Music Album Reviews

The Parisian rapper, born to Senegalese and Guinean immigrants, is determined to do with music what Kylian Mbappé did with soccer: change the national perception of who and what a Frenchman can be.

A person researching the best places to stay in Paris might come away from a Google search with a mixed impression of the city’s 19th arrondissement. It’s home to two of Paris’ most scenic public parks and the renowned Paris Conservatory, yet various commenters on TripAdvisor nonetheless caution that the neighborhood is “shady,” unsafe, downright dangerous. Which in France, where suspicion of Muslims runs high, is often just code for “diverse.” The 19th has one of the city’s largest concentrations of North African immigrants, including one of Paris’ fastest-rising musical stars. The rapper MHD, born to Senegalese and Guinean immigrants, has become a platinum-selling artist over the last several years, thanks to an ear for infectious, melodic beats and a talent for branding. On his second album, 19, the rapper born Mohamed Sylla attempts to demystify his home and proclaim his pride in it, joining the soccer player Kylian Mbappé as a young star hoping to change the national perception of what a Frenchman looks like.

MHD has cannily labeled his music Afro-trap, linking it to the dominant strain of hip-hop in the world’s cultural superpower, but for the most part it bears little resemblance to the Atlanta sound. The songs on 19 rarely convey menace or even ennui; they are joyous, accessible, and highly melodic, making use of analog instruments, including more guitar than I’ve heard on a rap album in quite some time. The opening track features a lovely passage from Mali’s Salif Keita, a legend of Afropop—a sound that MHD raps over on the next song, “Encore,” claiming all the city’s neighborhood for himself and his crew.

“Encore” is the first of many highlights, but it leads into a somewhat generic set of songs. 19 truly hits its stride on its sixth track, “Papalé,” which kicks off a series of infectious melodies that runs all the way through to “Bella,” another five tracks later. (The record is 19 tracks long; MHD is somewhat overcommitted to the concept.) He’s a more than competent rapper but what sets his songs apart is the same pleasurable eclecticism that made the fusion group the Very Best so exciting when they first emerged in 2008. MHD’s music has a similar rough, happy energy, as if cheer is a natural byproduct when two cultural styles speak on equal terms. He doesn’t always match his raps to the the beat—on “Papalé,” for instance, he’s in double time, ignoring the more moderate tempo of the drums—but his excellent ear for original, highly engaging instrumental work saves him any serious criticism on that front.

He is at his strongest when displaying his softer side, often in collaboration with singers. “Bébé,” which features the Congolese-French singer Dadju, is filled with sweet nothings, but the breezy clicking beat comes alive during the hook, with a flute backing a powerful earworm of a hook. “Bella,” the song that features Wizkid, is similarly catchy, and MHD displays some narrative strength on the first verse, telling the story of a forbidden love. That Wizkid’s verse, delivered in English, is no more compelling than MHD’s underscores the charisma of the young Frenchman, who only uses a few English cognates, ones that generally belie his abilities on the mic. (“One two three for the money”; “Artist, businessman.”) Even when MHD adopts a tougher posture, some element of the music always betrays him as the fun-loving 20-something that he is. “Afro Trap Pt. 10,” part of a long-running series, may sound a touch more aggy, but a playful beat and hook make it clear that the track just represents a slightly different flavor of party music.

Production on the record was mostly handled by Parisian producers including DSK on the Beat, Dany Synthé, and S2Keyz. But Diplo, who helped market MHD to an international audience with a series of Mad Decent remixes, steps in to Diplo things up on “Fuego.” It’s a strong song that nonetheless does a disservice to MHD, its jaded professionalism lacking the spirit that characterizes the best tracks on 19. The way MHD’s raps are grafted onto Malian, Nigerian, and other North African sounds on other tracks speaks to something more original than Diplo can offer at this point in his career: a specificity of place and taste. It’s what’s refreshing about 19 more generally. Though many may slot it under the meaningless term “world music,” the lyrics and the beats have a character that evokes not a world but a locale. The sound is not trap as we know it. But as the writer and academic Jesse McCarthy recently argued, “Trap is the only music that sounds like what living in contemporary America feels like.” 19 has that same truth in representation: It’s the sound of MHD’s life as lived—the perspective of a young man eager to take his story into his own hands.

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