He creates more drama with a single camera and an off-stage mike than a B-movie shoot-up in monochromatic shade. With the ease of an orator channeling a fire he has made peace with – Kery James lays into the sluggish beat of “Thug Life“, marking his lyrical accents with the precision of a prized pugilist. The camera zooms in to frame a face straight out of Africa’s mythical past.
He is Janet Jackson’s Hounsou Djimon – to wit Hounsou Djimon with muscularity of the lyrical kind; or Shabba Ranks flashing “Tight Grip” chic sans the urbane-but-sinewy rhymes of the millenial wunderkind. And yes, like Hounsou Djimon or Shabba Ranks’, James’ facial template has the iconic-talismanic power of a relic straight out of a archaeo-anthropological scrap book.
Unlike Mack “le Couteau“: He flashes white without a trace of blood but still evokes memories of the Maroons and the Mau Mau – even when sporting a Tommy Hilfiger get-up. Stereotype? Perhaps, but it goes deeper than that. The nervousness surrounding James’ hard core stylings and Muslim beliefs, is rooted in a reactive subconscious and the perception of James as a particularly potent medium and messenger. When he intones about “ma conviction“, the French powers that be want to know what that “conviction” is, because all of a sudden Marshall McLuhan’s medium has found a messenger with overkill effect – and where hip-hop is concerned, this is as potentially subversive as the Maroons or the Mau Mau. (The same story played itself out with hard core groups like N.W.A. and others in the U.S.A. )
Kery James Chronology
- 1977 – Born Alix Mathurin in Les Abymes, Guadelope, West Indies, December 28, 1977.
- 1985 – Comes to France and starts to rap
- 1989 – James begins rapping out of the Paris suburb of Orly. He gets noticed by MC Solaar who decides to feature him on his 1991 debut album “Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo”.
- 1990 – Kery James becomes a member of the Ideal Junior group with DJ Mehdi.
- 1992 – Idéal Junior releases the 12″ single, “La Vie Est Brutale” on the French dance label On the Beat.
- 1996 – The James/DJ Mehdi duo shortens its name to just Idéal J and release the eponymously named “Ideal J” album.
- 1998 – The duo releases its second full album entitled “Le Combat Continue”.
- 1999 – Las Montanas, one of James’ childhood friends is shot and killed. Kery James places his career on hiatus and takes sanctuary in the Islamic faith that had been the matrix of his childhood years.
- October 2001 – Kery James comes out with the first solo album “Si c’était à refaire”. It breaks into the top five albums on the French charts. Although the album is self-titled, it marks the first time he has recorded with a major record company: Warner Brothers. The album is a personal testament, that also marks James’ turning from his more hard-core stylings of the past.
- 2003 -Kery James reunites with Mafia K’1 for the album “La Cerise Sur le Ghetto”.
- 2004 – Kery records his second solo album “Ma vérité” which is released the following year.
- 2008 – James records his third album “À l’ombre du show business” which reaches number three on the French charts. By 2008, James had done a total of 54 collaborations with other artists in the short space of seven years.
If the French hip-hop exhibits the robustness, spit and polish of American hip-hop, it is because of its roots and origins. Latter day musical historians place the birth of French hip right about the early 80’s fueled by the racial, colonial and urban experiences of North African and Caribbean immigrants. This places the emergence of French hip-hop, which, according to Andre J.M. Prevos, is an amalgam of Euro-French and Francophone strains, soon after the initial flowering of hip-hop in the United States in the late 70’s. Prevos places the first recordings of French hip-hop around 1982 and 1983 with the release of a 12 inch b-side by Fab Freddy. (Further citations needed). The unmanned sonic landing of American hip-hop in France was followed by a tour of Europe by a group of American rappers in 1982. Some of them performed in France and ignited the already nascent ambers of the genre. The themes of racism and marginalization in the HLM (habitation à loyer modéré), the so-called affordable high-rises which are the French approximations of American projects or ghettoes, basically resonated with Les Damnés de la Terre.
The rise of Kery James intersects with that of the first French hip-hopper to make it big, MC Solaar, a Senegalese immigrant, who met James in 1989 and featured him on his first solo album in 1991.
Against this background, Kery James has emerged as something of a prodigy and seminal figure in his own right by virtue of his grasp of the hip-hop genre. Rapping in a language that has a surfeit of soft consonants James has excelled at forging a style that is as hard as it is articulate. He doesn’t just trip out his rhymes, he spits them out with the precision of an orator who is hell bent on impaling you with every vowel, every consonant and every sound. And he does this all with the gravity of a jail-warden on execution day. So commanding is James’ demeanor on-camera that he often requires little to minimal props in his videos – holding court and cutting loose with flow that has the weight Nostradamic quartrains. This is what Busta Rhymes was aiming for in his millenial trilogy(When Disaster Strikes, Extinction Level Event and Anarchy) but never quite pulled it off for lack of gravitas.
(This article is far from complete. More material will be added soon. Meanwhile, check out some of Kery James tracks on ilike.com here (The website may allow you one full listen per track after which it may ask you to register with a valid e-mail. We haven’t tested this out out yet …. ):
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Thug Life – A monochromatic paean to the streets (With English subtitles):
Kery James – Lettre a mon public
Kery James – Je Represente
N’incite Pas Bakar Feat. Kery James:
Kery James – Le Combat continue part 3 – Mafia k1 Fry:
Kery James – Banlieusards:
Kery james – Y’a pas de couleur pour pleurer:
Kery James – Pleure en Silence:
Kery James – En Sang Ble:
Kery James – En Allah Jai Foi (Dieu):
Infernally dope-adelic: Oxmo Puccino, Kery James & Rohff – “Pourquoi Tu Parles Comme ça?” (Why are you talking like that?)