Some of the artists that have the greatest effect on us as music nerds are not necessarily those who soundtracked our adolescences in a slow burn – I’m looking at you, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. The more I reflect, the more I find it is the artists with one song that stole upon me like a thief in the night that had the greatest effect. These are the songs which suddenly challenge and change my ideas about what is great and beautiful and something that we should aspire to.
If this tone sounds lofty and pretentious, it’s because that’s exactly what I was like when my best friend first showed me the video for Petite Noir’s ‘Chess’ in 2015 or 2016. It was delicate and he showcased a huge vocal range. On the precipice of moving out of the small city where I grew up, I thought I knew all the good music, but I knew nothing about anything that was like this. And for that reason, or whatever reason, I never explored Yannick Ilunga’s music further than that six and a half minute masterpiece.
So eight years after the release of his debut album La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful, will MotherFather live up to the unattainable standards of a 17 year old who was still hopeful about life?
Unexpectedly, the longest song is less than four minutes long, and the whole thing is less than half an hour. But PN covers a lot of ground and does it excellently. ‘777’ opens the album in a percussion-driven ritual of sorts, with Ilunga repeating, ‘You set me alight’ in an ecstasy. Straight after that is ‘Blurry’, featuring Zambian-born rapper Sampa the Great. It has a simple yet awesome dadrock-meets-grunge riff at its core, pushed through a bunch of modulating effects and layered over a downtempo beat. It’s reminiscent of The Beta Band’s ‘Dry the Rain’, except with rapping and Ilunga’s beautiful falsetto over the top.
At this point I was anxious that the rest of the album may not stack up. I was worried I would find myself obsessively going back to the first two tracks. But the whole thing delivers, even if ‘Blurry’ is a standout.
The unity of MotherFather comes courtesy of powerful rhythms, innovative textures and Ilunga’s voice. ‘Numbers’, ‘Finding Paradise’ and ‘Best One’ all use afrobeat grooves and washed out, echoey instruments which create a huge sense of space – they feel expansive, or in the parlance of early 2010s music writers, ‘stadium-ready’.
Another of the album’s best songs is ‘Concrete Jungle’. Like ‘777’, it rolls with just one chord progression start to finish, but Ilunga builds tension with urgent and emotional string arrangements. It wouldn’t be out of place in a TV show soundtrack.
So what happened when I threw rocks at the glass house, my 17 year old self’s idea of what ‘Chess’ was? Well, it turned out the house wasn’t made of glass, it was made of diamond.*
(Would a diamond house look like a glass house? Who knows, but the analogy works!)
Words: Cian Kinsella
Image: Lucie Rox