ARTS

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November 15, 2005

Standardized samples, lack of hooks spoil Purple City’s trip to France

France in the popular imagination of America serves as a kind of foil. It plays the snob to our average Joe, stands for frivolity in contrast to our more pragmatic approach, and comes off as our less aggressive, sometimes uncooperative, interlocutor on the stage of world politics. Paris to Purple City, a concept album from Harlem rap group Purple City, presents itself as a challenge to this version of the French, joining Purple City with eight French MCs for a 10-track CD of mainstream hip hop in two languages.

If this seems like an interesting or ridiculous idea to you, it’s definitely a little bit of both. Paris to Purple City has promising moments, as well as the kind of silly, borderline campy moments you would expect from the premise of the album. Other foreign, hip-hop–influenced sounds like reggaeton and grime have successfully made an impression on American rap music, but this CD doesn’t suggest that France has any Daddy Yankees or Dizzee Rascals waiting to penetrate the U.S. market.

The problem is that Purple City seems to be a B-list group without anything going for them—except that they’re generally competent, as well as affiliated with the more talented Dipset (Cam’ron’s group of MCs). The standardized samples and beats that make up the majority of the album don’t do much to help the generally dull rapping, make up for the lack of hooks, or highlight the skills of any of the guest MCs (who are separated from the country that Paris to Purple City is supposed to introduce them to by a language barrier).

On the other hand, the CD has points that make it bearable, because—even in light of all its drawbacks—Paris isn’t a completely bad release. A couple of tracks make an attempt at relevance with references to the war in Iraq, as well as social problems that mirror the ones under which American hip-hop developed. The peak of the album is when guest rapper Jim Jones (of Dipset) starts the second track growling, “Oui oui, we speakin’ French motherfucker,” before he proceeds to drop some of the best lines on the whole CD. A more even distribution of this kind of charisma in the verses throughout Paris would have gone a long way towards making this a more noteworthy release. What ends up happening is the French rappers just blend in with the uninteresting lyrics of Purple City; they becomes easily glossed-over filler on songs that aren’t able to draw the listener in lyrically or musically.

It would have been a huge difference if Paris to Purple City had made a point of representing the sound of French rap music, not just its lyricists, who are hard to get a sense of if you don’t parlez français. Appreciating the talents of foreign language hip-hop is difficult to do when placed in the homogenized context of sub-par American mainstream rap. Part of what helped Caribbean and English variants of hip hop infiltrate the States is their unique musical styles. Based on what’s offered here, the jury is still out on whether or not some comparable musical innovation exists in the land of cheese and wine.

In light of the recent rioting on the outskirts of Paris, the time seems perfect for a more transcontinental collaboration and a better understanding of the social and political situation across the Atlantic. It’s hard to believe that in a place experiencing such racial and economic tension (some of the North African and Muslim suburbs of Paris have triple the average French national unemployment rate), there isn’t a musical culture of comparable richness to that of the best of American hip hop, a scene that developed under a similar kind of adversity. But there have been some developments. Paris-based Rachid Taha, for example, is creating a fascinating blend of Middle Eastern rai with more Western sounds that express the racial and ethnic divisions that France is dealing with right now.

Paris to Purple City fails to show why American rap musicians and fans should pay attention to French music—despite the album’s noble intentions to do otherwise. Whether or not it’s time for French hip hop to make the leap Stateside is anybody’s guess, but this album makes it clear that Purple City isn’t the group to make it happen.