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Stromae’s Music Delves Into Dark Topics. His Return Is Right on Time.

Growing up in Belgium, Stromae was a big rap fan. “Hip-hop was like school when I was between the ages of 16 and 21,” he said earlier this month …

Stromae’s Music Delves Into Dark Topics. His Return Is Right on Time.
28.02.2022 22:08

Growing up in Belgium, Stromae was a big rap fan. “Hip-hop was like school when I was between the ages of 16 and 21,” he said earlier this month. “People like G. Dep, Black Rob and Notorious B.I.G. were my models.”

But it was the homegrown electro combo Technotronic — yes, they were Belgian — that suggested he might be able to get somewhere as a musician. “For me, ‘Pump Up the Jam’ is a classic,” Stromae said, before accurately reeling off the 1989 song’s Billboard position: No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart. “There’s something Belgian in me, maybe cynicism or irony or surrealism,” he added. “We’re always a little average — we try to do our best but …”

Stromae, speaking via video chat from a comfortable couch in his Brussels studio, trailed off, chuckling. Context provided the punchline: Over the past decade, the 36-year-old songwriter, performer and designer, whose gangly silhouette and precise elegance evoke a friendly Buster Keaton, has become a global star with music that blends those early influences: the poetic urgency of hip-hop and the dancey allure of electronic music.

In 2015, this son of a Belgian-Flemish mother and Rwandan father became the first Francophone performer singing in French to headline Madison Square Garden; that same year Kanye West joined him onstage at Coachella. But as Stromae’s success, lifted by earworms carrying serious messages like “Alors On Danse” and “Papaoutai,” seemed poised to reach another level, he took a break between albums that stretched to nine years.

During that time, his reputation only grew. “He’s mixing this Belgian singer-songwriter tradition, rhythms from all over the place, EDM — I don’t know where to start, really,” said Chris Martin of Coldplay, which featured Stromae on its 2019 track “Arabesque.” “It’s as if he’s downloaded the entire history of music into his brain and then sings what comes out. Everything he does has something that makes your synapses fire.”

Now Stromae — born Paul Van Haver (his stage name is an inversion of Maestro) — is back on Friday with “Multitude,” his third album and the first since his 2013 breakout, “Racine Carrée.” Return trips are scheduled to Coachella on April 16 and 23 and the Garden on Nov. 21.

The pause between releases was partly related to severe health problems Stromae endured in the mid-2010s. He suffered for years after an anti-malarial treatment set off a chain reaction of physical and mental ailments — which went as far and deep as suicidal thoughts. He broaches that subject in the new track “L’Enfer” (“Hell”), which he sang in a striking live performance on the French evening news in January. The song’s confessional tone and unadorned presentation felt like a departure from his usual flair for high concepts and singing in character.

“I still love telling stories but I found that the best way to tell this particular one was to use ‘I,’” he said plainly. “That felt obvious.”

In conversation, Stromae — relaxed in loosefitting pants and a blue sweater (he was once known for his bow ties) — made clear there were other reasons for the new record’s lengthy gestation.

One was the burnout that so often follows years of intense touring. While he did not release songs of his own for nearly a decade, he kept busy. He married his girlfriend, Coralie Barbier, and they had a son. He focused on Mosaert (another anagram), the design studio he runs with his two closest collaborators — his brother, Luc Junior Tam, and Barbier. Together they worked on their own unisex fashion “capsules,” as they call them, and on videos for Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF” and Billie Eilish’s “Hostage.”

The pandemic also played a role. While he was able to still go to his studio and compose music, Stromae said he could not come up with lyrics without the happenstance encounters, the minutiae of daily life that inspire him.

His slump eventually ended, and he passed a theme — folklore — on to his collaborators, including the 29-year-old London-based Moon Willis, who has composing, producing and performing credits on several of the new songs.

“Originally all I got was, ‘Paul’s starting a new album, the theme is folkloric music,’ ” Willis said over the phone with a laugh. “Over time it became clearer.”

A major element was traditional musical styles and instruments from all over the world: an Andean guitar-like charango, a Middle Eastern flute called a ney. When mentioning his interest in using the erhu, for example, Stromae explained, “it’s a kind of Chinese fiddle that you hear a lot in ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ Those are all points of reference to me, a little vulgar, a little basic — it’s my vision of world music coming from my hometown of Brussels.”

This translated to the movement accompanying the sounds, too. The choreographer Marion Motin, who worked on Stromae’s tours for “Racine Carrée” and “Multitude” as well as on some of his videos, recalled his directive for a performance of “Santé” on “The Tonight Show” in December. “He said he wanted something like the folk dances you would see in weddings, so I built from that,” she said in a phone interview.

“The main goal is to create good songs,” Stromae said. “That’s my primary job.” Credit…Hanne Van Assche for The New York Times

Stromae said he was trying to communicate warmth: “You hold each other and you have fun, it’s like dancing around a campfire.” The moves visualize, in a understated way, the song’s subject: solidarity and the labor of the hard-working people who make the world run. “It’s about those who have tough work schedules, those who work while we party,” Stromae said. “I wanted to pay tribute to the nurses and doctors who did such an amazing job during the pandemic and were so overworked. I actually start the song with my own cleaning woman, Rosa.”

Stromae has long been devoted to addressing sober subjects in his music, which is marked by its accessibility and sophistication. Aside from “Bonne Journée,” the lyrics on “Multitude” are often bleak, pointed or acerbic, with characters expressing loneliness and resentment, anger and frustration, set to delicate arrangements and impeccable melodies. Stromae’s hooks are memorable as ever — “C’est Que du Bonheur” (“It’s All Happiness”) is as catchy as it is brutally unsentimental about parenting.

The effect can be mystifying. “Sometimes you can’t explain why you love something, and that’s what happened with Stromae’s music: I loved it right away but couldn’t put it into words,” said the French comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze (“Amélie”), who teamed up with the musician to deconstruct “Alors On Danse” in a hilarious (and insightful) skit in 2010.

Willis was similarly flummoxed by how to describe his collaborator’s unique skill. “It’s like you’ve ticked all the boxes,” he said. “The grooves actually groove but they also have the structure of proper pop songs.”

A closer look at Stromae’s French lyrics reliably reveals superb storytelling from different perspectives, and subtle poetry. The sinuous, Middle Eastern-influenced new track “Déclaration” (“A Statement”) features the line “Forgive me, for one isn’t born misogynistic but can grow up to become so,” which echoes a famous saying by Simone de Beauvoir about becoming a woman.

“My wife and I often talk about it — she hates injustice, and let’s not lie to ourselves, misogyny and the difference between men and woman in society is one,” Stromae said. “I almost didn’t put the song on the album because the subject was so topical that I didn’t want to look as if I was just trying to exploit it. In the end I decided to go for it because it’s what I think, it contributes to the debate, and, after all, not that many men stake a position there.”

While Stromae loves elaborate concepts — Belgium, after all, was also the country of the Surrealist artist René Magritte, and the musician has deployed the Magritte-esque disclaimer “This is not a …” on some of his videos — they never undermine the sincerity of his approach.

Through both his visuals and his music, the messages translate across the globe, because “You feel the meaning even if you don’t understand the words,” Motin explained.

Stromae, as usual, had a humble explanation.

“I think it’s because we do things in the right order: we create the songs and then we come up with ways to stage them, not the reverse,” he said. “The main goal is to create good songs. That’s my primary job.”


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