Relatively speaking, Ken Samaras is a superstar. Unknown outside the confines of the Francophone world, under his alias Nekfeu – derived from the French argot verlan that inverses syllables (Ken-Nek) and ‘feu’, the French for fire – he is ubiquitous in French rap, a genre that is currently reshaping popular culture in its homeland.
Following the release of his second album Cyborg in 2016 (which is on the verge of reaching the same Diamond certification as its predecessor, Feu), Samaras took a two and a half year retreat from the rarefied air of French rap. Returning to his social media this past May, he announced the imminent arrival of his third album, Les étoiles vagabondes (The Wandering Stars), to be released, unusually, at selected cinemas in June.
In his time removed from the thriving French rap scene, the brother combination of PNL had revolutionized the merchandising of album releases, with a myriad of unique marketing campaigns, including partnering with Uber to pay for rides in exchange for their album being played during the journey. Returning to an ultra-competitive marketplace, Nekfeu’s homecoming now required an original blueprint.
Over 100,000 people left their homes on June 6th for the one-time screening of a documentary, charting Samaras’ musical journey over the past two years. As the credits rolled, the immediate release of an 18-track album of the same name was announced, distributed exclusively through streaming platforms. Nekfeu waited another week to release the CD, and a mere seven days later, he released another surprise album Expansion; a further 16 songs to integrate and complete the project at a staggering 34 tracks.
The title, inspired by the Jack London novel The Star Rover (Le Vagabond des étoiles, in French), the story of a San Quentin lifer who learns to survive the mental torture of an inescapable jacket by transcending his reality and walking among the stars, reflects Samaras’ feeling of being trapped by his fame in Paris. Disillusioned with his stardom, LEV charters the years that preceded its surprise release; an interval that saw the former battle rapper journey in obscurity between Japan, the US and his father’s homeland of Greece.
Les étoiles finds Nekfeu wallowing in melancholy, balancing the despondency of a break-up and a growing ambivalence to his celebrity, with his trademark iconoclastic stance on racism. Unlike many of his peers in the French scene, the majority of whom are second-generation African migrants, marginalized on the impoverished peripheries of major French cities; Samaras is well-traveled, middle-class, and white. The societal privilege of his whiteness, however, has unfailingly tempered his ego throughout his career, and his unearned assets weigh heavy on his mind on the title track opener, “A little Arab boy who does silly things, in France they’re a thug / A little black boy the same, but when it’s a little white boy he’s just a scoundrel.”
In France, Feu is considered a ‘kickeur’, a rapper noted for their eloquence and technical delivery. When talking polysyllabic rhyme schemes, few are as proficient — in any dialect. Galvanizing his flow on “Cheum”, Nekfeu saunters over the Hugz Hefner riddim, dropping frantic iambs about his misspent youth, unrequited love, and petit crime as a white adolescent among Arab friends in Paris. “I was the only one of my boys who tried to hustle / And I was the only one of my boys the police didn’t question.”
Often patronisingly referred to as a ‘bon élève’ (good student) – an inference to his fastidious attention to arranging rhymes being a way to compensate for his lack of a street education – the tenor of Les étoiles is weighty enough to ward off criticism of rhyming for rhyme’s sake. Confronting his heartache on “Elle Pleut”, Nemir’s resplendent hook magnifies his heavy-hearted reflection, before Feu’s frustration piques in an unlikely collaboration with Vanessa Paradis, that sees him join the ever-expanding list of crooning emcees. A hazy trap ballad, the pair’s discourse on codependency “Dans l’univers” laments Feu’s sentimentality and the evident opportunities that exist to him outside of his toxic relationship: “You’re obsessed with emptiness, and I hate the way you live / And you have your share of vices, but it’s you that I want”.
All of the features on LEV are impeccably deployed, underscored by the highly anticipated collaboration “Tricheur” with Belgian rapper Damso. The duo, recognized as two of the paramount dealers of multis in rap français, luxuriate in assonance, switching between French and English locution to create the type of G Rap compound rhymes English speaking heads would rhapsodize over – if the language weren’t a deterrent. And in an uncredited surprise, French rap’s most distinctive voice, Niska, contributes his signature inflection to “Voyage léger”, with a vigorous series of Jeezy-esque ad-libs that help turn the globe-trotting track into a point-blank banger.
Boasting some of the busiest verses to be found anywhere in rap this year, “Koala mouillé” showcases Feu at his freewheeling best, while the excellent “Rouge à lèvres” with BJ the Chicago Kid closes out with a scorching double-time flow akin to a latter-day Marshall Mathers. Although Samaras fails to bridle his anguish in verse (“It seems to me that I’ve been sinking for a few months / So somber that my shadow is lighter than me”), he emerges from his despair with a renewed confidence in his ability to employ some of the wickedest cadences in hip-hop, “who can rap better than that? I want names” (“Jeux vidéo et débats”).
“Compte les hommes”, with longtime collaborator Alpha Wann, is a first-rate ode to early 2000s French rap duo Lunatic, famed for their back-and-forth bars, that will delight fans of Jadakiss and Styles P’s quid pro quo raps. A student of the rap game, rhyme construction is not Nekfeu’s only area of research, however, referencing postcolonial philosophers in some of Les étoiles more polemical moments. “I have the same view of France as Frantz Fanon”; pan-African revolutionaries “My father taught me about Sankara”; and American exceptionalism, “I’d like to make American rap, but I’m not imperialist enough, not materialistic enough.”
Nekfeu returned from his pilgrimage with a rich musical tapestry with which to construct his expansive opus. His sojourn in Japan emerges in the tortured “Natsukashii” and “Takotsubo”; while the stirring gospel chorales and trumpets of Trombone Shorty, recorded in New Orleans, provide LEV’s most richly produced pieces, “Ciel noir” and the exalted “Dernier soupir”. In lighter moments, the heterogeneity of the project finds some much-needed levity in the California inspired “CDGLAXJFKHNDATH” and an out of character take on the current French Afropop movement, “Chanson d’amour”.
Through the traditional album format having been reacted under the streaming model and the increasing number of artists operating without the guidance of an A&R, the curation of an album’s tracklist has increasingly lost its importance. In attempting to maximize streaming revenue, French hip-hop albums are habitually and disagreeably overburdened. With an over two-hour runtime, Les étoiles is the exception to that rule, with a tracklisting that is not only impeccably orchestrated, but improbably absorbing. The production, helmed by his in-house Seine Zoo stablemates, is consistently dexterous, earnestly crafted to allow Feu’s dense compositions to take center stage.
France has historically held literary technique amongst the highest of its cultural accomplishments, and in hip-hop’s second home, the eloquence of an emcee’s ‘plume’ is notably more appreciated than in its birthplace. Les étoiles vagabondes is a masterclass in poetic devices and through exceptionally crafted efforts such as “Sous les nuages”, “A la base”, and “Jeux video et débat”, Nekfeu makes a compelling case for his pen being the finest in la Métropole.
Such scrupulous attention to detail is a hallmark of the Parisian’s approach to rhyming and has in the past, come at the cost of his songs. However, on his third release, Nekfeu’s attempt to recover his poise through what he does best results in his most introspective and compelling work yet. The hooks, an Achilles heel in previous albums, are both polished and memorable and contribute substantially to a remarkably more musical effort than previous albums.
Through a discerning balance of his competitive rap instincts and the contemporary trend of embracing grief in sixteens, Les étoiles vagabondes excels as a multifaceted, exhilarating and ultimately inspired body of hip-hop. Already the most rapidly consumed rap project anywhere in the world in 2019, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better this year – on any side of the Atlantic.