Review Summary: The king is dead, long live the king
Booba was the king of French rap.
That sounds like an overstatement, but his ability to traverse through different eras while maintaining an enormous commercial success testifies to his never-decreasing influence. Nicknamed "The Duke" - gotta admit it's classy - Élie Yaffa aka Booba entered the French rap game through legendary collective Time Bomb, whose influence on how to ally hardcore rap with alliterations and assonances still is lauded these days. Shortly after that, Booba - who was a bad boi OG - was incarcerated for cab robbery, and his eighteen months in prison led to his two most lauded albums: Mauvais Oeil
("Evil Eye") in 2000 in the Lunatic duo with fellow rapper Ali, and his first album, Temps Mort
("Time-out") in 2002.
was, and still is, Booba's magnum opus. Mostly written during his time in prison, the record stank of pure misanthropy and hatred towards human beings, and saw Booba develop his one major contribution to French rap: the "metagore". It's basically an ultra-violent metaphor, and while that sounds like nothing to write home about, the way he alludes to the dirtiest images to mind while forcing himself to stick to predefined rhyming schemes was unprecedented and remains unmatched to this day. It even got to the point that La Nouvelle Revue Française, the leading French literary journal, devoted an article to this new, horrible, and yet terrifically modern way of playing with words.
Following this instant critical praise, the 2000s and early 2010s saw him continue establishing his dominance by bringing new influences into his bangers. First of all, he was the first one to import Atlanta and Southern influences into French rap. Truth be told, when you're the first one to do something, there's a good chance you do not perform perfectly, and Booba's first inquiry into Southern hip hop now sounds dated and cliché, but at least it delivered some classic hits ("N°10", "Boulbi"). Another of his infamous contribution is the increased usage of autotune, and once again, it opened many doors but did - ABSOLUTELY - not aged the finest. Trailblazer's curse, I guess.
2015 was the last important year for Booba: after getting wrecked by critics for the D.U.C
album, he came back only six months later with Nero Nemesis
, his best modern album, and one of the best French rap albums of the past decade. Nero Nemesis
was important, not solely for its sheer quality, but because it was the last time Booba was actually challenged to prove he earns the throne he claims is rightfully his. His latest album, Trône
saw him sporting a crown and pose himself as the one true king. Although it sold extremely well, the album did not bring any major changes. Booba gave an impression of sloppiness, being stuck in a comfort zone from which he refuses to leave.
It's in this context that, in 2020, Booba continued to hold the center stage thanks to some hard-hitting singles, but, most, importantly, through his incessant activity and clashes on Instagram and Twitter. Gathering scandals months after months, most of which can be summed as "Booba verbally assaults people who didn't ask anything", it led to a point when many observers wondered how the one guy at the top of the food chain could get so alienated without any reason. ULTRA
, his tenth and final album, is thus the most awaited 2021 record in the French-speaking world, concluding a career spanning over twenty years.
After this introduction that would have deserved a review in its own right, let's FINALLY dive into the record. First of all, claiming loud and clear that an album constitutes a discography's conclusion was dangerous: from the first listening, each listener will criticize it to define where it fits in the Duke's discography. What was obvious even before the release was that one's appreciation of the album is made through the prism of one's expectations. Those expecting a classic were disappointed, those expecting a debilitating turd were positively surprised, and unconditional fans proved once again how solipsism destroys any kind of critical thinking.
is - surprise incoming - neither shit nor an immediate classic. It's an album that, as Booba himself, suffers and shines by its choices. His rhymes and punchlines are still corrosive - using Rwandan metaphors, or urging the listener to engage in a coital act with their female progenitor - and he has mastered over the years the art of creating simple melodies that irretrievably crawl their way up to one's mind. But the one criticism thrown at the album is its morosely low amount of bangers. The Duke has accustomed us to delivering at least one huge club jam per album (like "Kalash" or "92i Veyron"), but it's not the case here. Mind you, this is nonetheless hard-hitting, but no song includes the mindless vibe required to tear the club up, being all locked in seriousness that, although granting a certain solemnity to the project, takes away some of the fun'n'dumb vibes that Booba has always had. This serious approach also becomes indisputable when looking at the beats: if everything is musically butter-smooth, there are few surprises as most of the beats can be grouped under the Booba Type Beats
collection. The few beats that do not follow this formula, unfortunately, all fall into a similar "sad piano beat 😢" canvas, and only the short length allows the album to avoid redundancy.
So, is ULTRA
a departure worthy of his arrival? Per se, the album is rather good. But, when considering this is the French rap king's final album, it's... meh? It's objectively better than the majority of releases, but, just as objectively, not on par with his best projects. Closer "Dernière Fois" summarizes the whole project's vibe: it's mostly melancholic although it contains some gritty punchlines, and it features another rapper that takes a tad too much space. What many hoped for was a super-hardcore final track, a grimy banger telling us all to go fuck ourselves and bow before the one and true king. But no, the one dude who invented the "metagore" preferred to leave the scene with a personal, and almost touching message. In a way, this sounds like the sanest manner to address the chapter's end: Booba confirmed that, despite ULTRA
being his last album, he will continue to create music - most likely in the form of singles. These singles will allow him to go back to the banger's area, which he temporarily left here.
Now that the king's departure has been announced, who will be the new French rap monarch? Some of the biggest sellers do not seem to want to assume this status: Nekfeu doesn't communicate at all and therefore can't undertake the non-musical responsibilities the role involves, same for PNL, JuL is too "franchouillard" - ie too close to the campaign's French people - and too eclectic to be the king of rap - he's the king of camping's parties on the other hand. Damso is, well, Belgian, and the neighbor country's slightly condescending view on Belgium will make Damso struggle to fully be considered the most important rapper of his generation. Maybe Booba's protégé Maes can claim the throne, but he still has to produce an album that satisfies both the sharpest critics and the Spotify playlists, something his last album only partially accomplished. In the independent world, many artists could be King if only sales would follow: Alpha Wann and Freeze Corleone have a huge influence, but they remain confined to a more elitist sphere of rap.
Ironically - or not, who knows -, the two most legitimate rappers to follow Booba's traces are the two artists who lately made moolah by being on other rappers' albums. Ninho is the one rapper who transforms every track he's performing on into a gold disc, while SCH was the French rapper who spent the most time on top of the 2020 Spotify chart, without even releasing an album. These two have all the necessary aspects to claim the throne, but no clear contender stands out, which takes us back to the original sentence: the king is dead, yes, but who's going to take the throne? Let us only hope that, unlike after Charlemagne's death, France will not be fragmented among the sovereign's offspring.