le monde ou rien: charting the rise of french hip hop’s newest stars PNL
PNL are mysterious and publicity shy brothers from the Parisian banlieues who are revolutionising the city’s rap scene.
France has been rocked recently; by protests, riots, strikes, terrorism, racism. As the start of the European football championship looms, the country is locked in disputes over proposed reforms to a labour law which would make it easier for companies to fire their workers. This has provoked #occupy style protests in Paris' Republique square in an attempt to halt the changes. Republique, the site of mourning following the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 terrorist attacks in the city, has been transformed into a space of revolution. What began with the city's youth has spread to the rest of the country. As the mood breaks beyond Paris, oil refineries are now on strike, with the train companies, pilots and tube drivers set to join them. Petrol's running out, protests are turning ugly as police fire water cannons and tear gas into crowds.
Amongst it all, a slogan emerged on the streets of Paris, Le Monde Ou Rien, the world or nothing. It seemed to sum up the mood in the country, dreaming of something better, something idealistic and utopian, be realistic and demand the impossible. It was a slogan straight out the May 68 playbook, turned towards a new world.
First though, Le Monde Ou Rien was the slogan of PNL. An elusive French rap group formed of two brothers, NOS and Ademo. The song, released last summer, catapulted the group from the banlieues to the pop charts.
PNL changed the rules. They didn't have a record label or a publicity machine, they gave no interviews, spoke to no-one, released no information, they simply dropped video after video straight onto YouTube, let the music do the talking for them. Their videos gained them a cult following, which snowballed via word-of-mouth into something larger and more concrete. There was of course a backlash, cries of disingenuity met them, people decrying their slick videos, supposing they must be puppets of someone in the French music industry. Though no one has really come out with anything to back up their accusations.
Each video release became an event, racking up millions of hits in a few days. Le Monde Ou Rein is close to a staggering 40 million views now. They created an international wave when their debut album hit the top of the charts purely off downloads (it recently went Gold). It seems the sound of a new generation of French youth had found its soundtrack.
Le Monde Ou Rien, that album's first track, seemed to set out their stall, and became a rallying cry of sorts. A video shot on exotic location (this time La Scampia, Naples' notorious housing estate, home of the Camorra mafia) as well as the estate of Tarterêts that they grew up on. The video features throngs of youths, loitering, decked out in Ralph Lauren, Burberry nova check, PSG and Barca shirts. They rap in hash-soaked tempos, laced with autotune and peppered with North African slang.
They rap in the archetypes of the genre; weed, the suburbs, boredom, drugs, drug dealing, family, love, girls, the police. It all comes slung with an atypical dose of misery though, that punctures the bravado bubble you might've been expecting. The lyrics and beats match up in an apathetic-nihilistic mire; swagger comes coated in a dose of sadness, the grim reality of life in banlieues is sweetened with dreams of something better.
"We're not leaving any time soon / We don't dream we just pass each other the blunt / We've been struggling with misery for a while now," they rap on Je Suis PNL. Misery, La Hess, in French-Arabic slang, crops up in their lyrics ("Hold your head up, misery is taking me on a ride / Fuck your ladder, at the bottom of the hole, all I have to do is pile my sins up on each other and climb." they sing on Le Monde Ou Rien) as a kind of refrain.
It's this existential take on the tropes of hip hop, a kind of Left Bank meets trap philosophy, something beautifully and stereotypically Parisian, that has led to Le Monde Ou Rien to becoming a slogan for the country's youth-led revolt. They crystallise a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness in their music, a nihilistic focus on the now, in a society without much of a tomorrow. Youth unemployment is at 25% in France, it's worse if you're the child of immigrants, at times the rate of unemployment for those from immigrant backgrounds has been double the rate of white French youth.
It's against this backdrop that their new video dropped, on Friday, hitting three million views in three days. Tchiki Tchiki, sampling Ryuichi Sakamoto's score for Japanese POW film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, sees the brothers in Japan. The use of Ryuichi Sakamoto sample only underscores the delicate, aggressive malaise that pervades their songs.
Tchiki Tchiki is the second drop from their next album, of which they've also teased out Da, which was kind of a vindication of their success, of doing it their own way, that they released when their debut got certified gold.
The lack of information about the group, along with their heavily stylised videos, has undoubtedly played a part in their success. But it's their unique puncturing of trap bravado with fragile atmospheres and hypnotic sounds that has made them the most interesting French hip-hop group of their generation.
Text Felix Petty