The conventional thinking on live albums is that they're just the sonic
version of the T-shirt -- no more than a little something for the fans
to take home and remember the concert by.
Occasionally, though, a live album helps a group make that all-important
quantum leap up the career ladder -- simply because it helps would-be
fans discover what they've been missing, when they decide to stay home
and watch "Saturday Night Live."
So it went in the late '70s, when double-live sets by Kiss (1975's
Alive), Peter Frampton (1976's Frampton Comes Alive!) and
Cheap Trick (1978's Live at Budokan) helped push those artists
from the mid-to-lower end of the charts to the very top. Flash forward
20-some years, and you'll find MC Solaar's double-live album, le tour
de la question, which could perform the same magic for Solaar, if
radio stations would give it a chance.
Solaar's a multiplatinum artist in Europe, but in the U.S., his jazzy
hip-hop gets play on college stations and that's about it, even though
he's rhymed side-by-side -- and held his own -- with rap legends Guru
and De La Soul. He's an MC with a tremendous sense of flow, who has
never bowed to trends or recorded an album in English; yet both the
media and hip-hop fans in the U.S. have treated him as a curiosity.
Those who see him as a mere oddity will have their doors blown off by
le tour de la question, a 2-CD set that, unlike many live albums,
doesn't wear out its welcome in the middle of disc one. It's one of
those so-cool albums, you'll hear it and wonder why you haven't been
paying closer attention to Solaar. Just as millions of '70s rock fans
didn't buy a Cheap Trick album until the live version of "Surrender"
lured them into it, there are legions of hip-hop fans out there with
some catching up to do; this album is a fine place to start.
I don't speak a lick of French beyond what I learned from LaBelle, but
MC Solaar's flow on this album is captivating.
Years of attending hip-hop shows has taught me that MCs often don't have
the breath control to duplicate what was patched together in the studio.
But this live document shows MC Solaar to be a rhymer who thrives in a
live environment. "Obsolete," "A Dix de Mes Disciples," and
"Paradisiaque" (RealAudio excerpt) show MC Solaar rhyming with ease over complex funk-jazz
rhythms, while "Wonderbra" and "Gangster Moderne" find the band
tightening things up to allow him to spit out dense rhymes just as well
as the best of the East Coast lyricists.
Whether you speak French or not, you'll speak the language of MC Solaar.
Arguably, not understanding the lyrics can give listeners a greater
appreciation for MC Solaar's art: When they are freed from concentrating
on the meanings of words, listeners can focus on how the rapper sculpts
sound -- around, through and over the jazzy rhythms. They can also focus
on the backing music, which on this album is some of the best jazz-funk
to be released in ages.
Mostly horn-free, the band is tight and loose in all the right places,
accenting MC Solaar's rhymes on the call-and-response "Bouge de La" (RealAudio excerpt) by
keeping it soft but funky, while hitting hard in all the right places on
such songs as "Gangster Moderne" and "Les Temps Changent" (RealAudio excerpt).
Radio in the summer of '76 was all about the Frampton Comes
Alive! mix of thumping rockers and arena-friendly ballads. If hip-
hop radio dared to spin le tour de la question, the LP's jazz-
funk workouts and lazy-cool come ons might make the summer of 1999 just