When US hip-hop magazine, The Fader, dropped its new cover last July, there were more than a few readers asking, “Who’s that?” In front of a pastel violet background with their fists bumped and their hair slicked back stood PNL, two brothers from the Parisian suburbs. In only two years, the duo have released three albums, the last of which (Dans la Légende) was certified diamond after selling over 500,000 copies in France alone. After years of succeeding only in their home country, the whole world is now catching onto the dreamy cloud rap of their breakthrough hit, “Le Monde Ou Rien”.
PNL are just one example of a new generation of French artists who are drawing fresh attention to the country’s music scene with their bold experimentation and dedication to their roots. Where once French rap was seen as the true and gritty struggle sound of the suburbs, it now has a colourful new vision; packed with vibrancy, emotion, hooks, and a raft of new influences. And, more importantly, its popularity has rocketed among listeners. One Parisian MC, MHD, has gone from delivering pizzas to playing in front of 65,000 in just 18 months. And that’s before we mention stars like Marseille’s Jul and nice guy rapper Nekfeu.
One of the rising stars of this new crop is Manast LL’, who hails not from Paris or Marseille like most French stars, but from a quaint central city on the banks of the river Loire called Orléans. In the last few years, he’s crafted a niche for himself with his sensual sing-rap style and contemplative lyrics about late nights and lost loves. Last year’s single “Sookah” – which premiered on Pigeons & Planes – was Manast’s aesthetic encapsulated: a sparse and hypnagogic track that oscillated between rap and pop, romance and lust.
We meet one afternoon in the New Era offices in London, ahead of his live show at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. Manast is wearing rose-tinted spectacles and a seafoam shirt with abstract patterns, and has the slow but measured manner of a wise head on young shoulders.
“The problem with France is that it is a conservative country,” he tells me. “People are not open-minded; they are scared of what they want and who they want to be. Which makes all this new French music really interesting, because all the codes are being broken. There are rappers talking about feelings, about women, about how they grew up – there are even androgynous rappers where there were none here before. French culture is moving.”
Manast is a thoughtful guy. During our conversation he frequently breaks off into tangents about why he has recently chosen to eat less meat, and his theories about what sugar is doing to us all. He thinks almost everything is messed up right now, from food to the internet to politics. And this has inspired him to focus his art on things that aren’t superficial or material, but “real things” that truly matter.
Perhaps some of this comes from his upbringing. He didn’t grow up in the city, he grew up in the French countryside in a village between two projects; never far away from horses, chickens, and open fields. “Nowadays, we really forget where we are from,” he says. “I think there are some people that only know big buildings, cars, and pollution. They’ve never seen proper forests and how different colours of nature come out through the seasons. I know where I’m from and it keeps me grounded.”
That’s not to say his upbringing was all autumn leaves and sunshine. Manast is of Congolese descent, and because of the rural nature of their home in central France, he and his family were the only three black people in the area. This was amplified when he and his brother went to school and began to experience first-hand the prejudices of other kids in their generation.
Manast became a shy kid, not talking too much. He was more into basketball than classroom popularity, and his obsession with the sport soon got him into broader American culture. In no time, he had braids and baggies, was listening to US rappers like Chingy, UGK and Mike Jones, and making music of his own. In his time as an artist, he’s already caught the attention of iconic music label Kitsune and Sam Tiba of French production dream team Club Cheval.
Now, established in La Ligne Bleu (a collective of managers, photographers, musicians, and directors, whose logo Manast has tattooed on his neck), 2017 was one of his most action packed, with an EP and a mixtape dropping in a matter of months. First came 42 Stories: a complex and rich concept EP which unravelled fragmented memories of past relationships. It was made with a group of producers across one summer spent in the countryside and pool sides of Saint Etienne.
“Love is the most important thing that we have as humans. That’s the only thing that brings people together.”
This ongoing theme of love in his music and artistic identity is something that is deeply important to him. Love, or at least the search for or denial of it, features in nearly all of his work. It’s even in his name (the LL of Manast LL stands for “live love”). “It’s my mantra,” he tells me. “Love is the most important thing that we have as humans. That’s the only thing that brings people together.”
Mid-2017, he dropped Shawty’s Lov Samples out of nowhere, a spontaneous and experimental mixtape made with French producer Blase that sounds like if Future had spent a summer in Paris. The compilation made with La Ligne Bleue, Bleue Vol.1, was then released 31st January. It’s indicative of an American influence that is prevalent in all of Manast’s tracks, including his lyrics, which are always delivered in English.
“When people ask why I rap in English even though I am French I say you don’t tell an Italian painter only to paint in red, green and white because he’s Italian. It came naturally because I was listening to American music.”
For Manast, this buoyant new interest in French music around the world has become noticeably visible at shows. “There are more people singing my lyrics than ever before,” he points out. And with a new single titled “What You Saying” out now, he’s more excited than ever about where this new generation of French artists can take it. “There is more confidence and acceptance than ever. People feel free to say what they want, and that is making our music more and more authentic.”
Check out Manast's latest single here