Listening to MC Solaar's sumptuous latest album, Mach 6, makes you want to be better at French. And, unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the London gig was an exclusively French affair. The Gallic hip-hop superstar spoke to the audience in French, addressing us only once in English ("Make some noise"), and it was clear that most of the crowd were French. Solaar can speak English well, but not tonight.
A barrage of vinyl-scratching and a strong sense of expectation greeted Solaar's first live appearance in the UK for nine years. Ludicrously successful across the Channel, the rapper has been compared to the poet Verlaine and described as "a bit rap, a bit spoken, a bit Gainsbourg, a bit Leonard Cohen". Heady praise, and Solaar has big ideas to match. "Mach 1 is the speed of sound. Mach 2 is the speed of Concorde. So, Mach 6 is like the future, and I'm going into Mach 6," Solaar has claimed. Well, Mach 6 is certainly fearless, with its audacious mix of Asian, dancehall, African and Russian music. But would he be able to bring its immaculate compositions to the stage?
Solaar performed with a band that included a drummer (no drum machine at a hip-hop concert? Unprecedented) and a double-bassist, and the Senegal-born, pacifist star sported zero bling. His first track was Mach 6's moody "Guerilla" - the ideal track for a cop thriller - which established an impeccably rich sound that never faltered all night. He prowled the stage, flaunting some smooth soul vocals on "Baby Love", but it wasn't until Solaar's diminutive co-singer Linda kicked in with her gorgeous, haunting soul voice on "Les Colonies" that the gig caught fire. Solaar followed it up with the jazzy (hence the double bass) "J'Connais Mon Role" and the rousing "Hasta la Vista Mi Amor!" (from his 2001 album Cinquième As), accompanied by Spanish guitar. With the tempo cranked up and the mood enhanced, we all belonged in his Solaar system now, and he launched into the song that made his name, the stirring "Bouge de Là". The gig became more joyful, less achingly cool. As if to confirm the sense of joie de vivre, Solaar's two hooded rapping cohorts performed some preposterous body-popping à la New Kids on the Block.
The second half of the concert, which included Mach 6's beautiful "La Vie Est Belle" and the powerful "Solaar Pleure", was much the more satisfactory. It was a shame he chose to hide a couple of his best tracks, "La Belle et le Bad Boy" and "Paradisiaque", in an unnecessary medley. And he did rather blow it with the encore: there wasn't one.Reuse content