MC Solaar Comes Alive!

French rapper's double-live album could be hip-hop's answer to career-making live sets from Kiss, Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick.

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

as memorable.