Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Stromae – Papaoutai

Turns out we love a bit of emo Francophone bosh-rap.


Mallory O’Donnell: I’m pleased that I thought Brel before I learned Stromae was Belgian–he spits his French with the same belly-fire that old Jacques did. He’s on the same emotional level as that bastard, too–making you feel strangely raw and wounded even if you don’t speak a lick of French. If you do, though, might want to get ready with the hanky. The dramatic sub-Saharan-inflected electronic-pop framework does absolutely everything in service of the lyric. A near–perfect tune, and exactly the kind of thing we need to be talking more about around these parts. 

Will Adams: The message behind the title is the first key to unlock – it’s Papa, où t’es, as in, where are you? – and that allows you to enter the stunning progression of emotion that Stromae employs. The first verse gleams with false comfort as he repeats what his mother tells him – he has to travel for work often. But by the second verse, he knows better, the eyes narrow, and his lips curl into a snarl. And linking it all together is the chorus: the cry of a lost child, pummeling you with every hit. This is powerful stuff.

Daisy Le Merrer: French-speaking lyricists usually suffer from a tragic need to pun, probably inherited from Serge Gainsbourg, who was obviously much better at it than those who attempt to follow in his footsteps. Once in a while, though, you get someone like Stromae who’s not trying to be clever for its own sake but understands how punning can add layers of meaning to a song. “Empapaouter” is occitan argot for “to swindle”, but “papaouter” sounds just like “daddy, where are you?”, and Stromaé sings it like a zouk. Pretty deft.

Scott Mildenhall: Songs about absentee fathers are, unsurprisingly, quite rare. In fact, the only other one that instantly comes to mind is Glasvegas’ “Daddy’s Gone“, a near [10] that was overwhelming in its sincere rage, longing and confusion — ultimately it’s all futile, because he’s gone. Stromae is much the same, delivering a rallying call to what he sees as an inexorable cycle of fatherless children that quickly reveals itself as being truly personal, ranting about his misplaced guilt and regret at keeping faith for so long while howling the title lyric with anguish that suggests something completely different to the snarling mockery he delivers elsewhere — on some level, he really does want to know the answer, and probably always will. All this, and yet it remains a pop song, as danceable as it is compelling. He’s no happier than when the world last found him, but, as then, completely accessible on a level that transcends language.

Alfred Soto: A glance – which I don’t ordinarily do – at the translated lyrics confirms it’s about an absent father and a grieving son. “Ah tell us who has diarrhea,” he sings, without sorrow or constipation, pretending he doesn’t hear the highlife guitar playing over the outro. 

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: The introduction to “Papaoutai” is a jagged assembling of peaceful pianos (not unlike those from James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love”) and jarring chords that swing left and right through speakers. It softens and spikes, comforts then crunches. Stromae crafts the rest of the song in this style, rubbing a laserguided house thump and slithers of highlife guitar up against emotional pleas for an absentee father, merging the carefree and concerned into an interesting whole. His angst feels earned, his voice a lightly-autotuned timbre that lends itself well to spittle-flecked frustrations: “Tell us who took responsibility/without care” he seethes in the direction of his father, grunting out a Kanye-esque “hahhh!” for punctuation. The song pulsates onwards but there’s no release in the club-ready sound for him, only scores to settle and words to be had.

Brad Shoup: Give me a modern-rock or hip-hop daddy lament and I’m tapping the “skip” key. But those shuttering synths make the moment large. The wounds are there, but the tom slaps place Stromae astride his hurt.

Anthony Easton: The first 3:30 of this sort of slid by me, no real opinions, but the last five or six seconds, that formal coda of jazz hand twinkle, is pure highlight. 

Edward Okulicz: If you can only make out the tune and the tone of voice of the chorus’s bosh-and-cry, it’d work just fine in a club setting, and closer listens to both these elements reveals them both to be subtle and well-done. Small parts of the instrumental, or snatches of Stromae’s nagging melody would be good enough to base entire songs around. It all sounds brilliant; its sonic tricks speak so cleverly you need not know a word of French to appreciate it.

Alex Ostroff: This whole track is both banging and devastating in equal measure and the titular cry is the major force behind that. Still, my brain latches onto the bit immediately preceding the chorus — “Ça doit faire au moins mille fois que j’ai compté mes doigts” — turning a childhood of questions and rage into an extended, twisted game of hide-and-seek. File this next to Fefe Dobson’s ‘Unforgiven‘ in the spitting-scorn-about-shitty-dads-sweepstakes; it’s at least as angry and at least as wonderful.

Katherine St Asaph: “Cat’s in the Cradle” as weaponized EDM. Both of these work better than you’d think.

Reader average: [8.88] (42 votes)

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20 Responses to “Stromae – Papaoutai”

  1. What a song. Great blurbs too. I can’t do it justice, not least because I can never fully understand the language he’s using (< intentional double meaning). As far as French goes I found what Cédric explains really interesting, and there's no way I would have found that out otherwise so thanks!

    Similarly, when I first listened I thought he might be saying "comptez mes doigts", which I hoped was a colloquial insult. If it isn't, it should be.

  2. That’s cool to get a French speaking perspective, something I definitely wondered about when writing this.

    If we’re talking songs about absentee fathers, we gotta mention Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel’s ‘Where Have You Been’. Beanie’s verse is one of the rawest. things. ever.

  3. What is that instrument that kicks in around 2:28? I love it but have no idea what it is. (I think I’ve heard it on Ghana pop tracks?)

  4. Thanks guys. Half the time I feel like I miss some of the context on american songs. Thank god I’m able to play the French card from time to time.

  5. So…anybody have an answer for my q?

  6. you mean the guitar?

  7. i have no idea :(

  8. it’s still missing from the Best of 2013 list. 7.27, people!

    btw, he released another great song hot on the heels of this one, “Formidable”. he does drunk well…

  9. Good point!

  10. More great absent-dad tracks: Naughty By Nature’s “Ghetto Bastard (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright),” Everclear’s “Father Of Mine,” Fefe Dobson “Unforgiven.”

    Would’ve given this an 8 or a 9. It builds and builds.

  11. (Oh, I see Alex was on to Unforgiven. Should learn to read more attentively.)

  12. There’s now going to be a version of this with Angel Haze, it seems!

  13. Blimey. Here’s a clip, seems like she has quite a prominent role in it.

    Presumably it’s an attempt at breaking Anglophone markets, and that’s surprising enough, mainly because I’d be surprised if it took, in the UK at the very least (one guess why). I’d be very happy if it did though!

  14. Well, he did the same thing with “Alors on danse” in 2010. The remix with Kanye West (!) was probably the reason it charted in the UK, it reached #25. Not that it was an improvement in any way though.

  15. No, I didn’t like that version particularly, but I remember hearing the song on the radio and I’m pretty sure it was only ever in its original form; kind of surprising really. Similar thing happened with Danza Kuduro and Pitbull.

  16. Same here – I was aware of “Alors on Danse” and its charting but never heard the Kanye version.

  17. My bad, I assumed there was a connection. Good on the UK then, I guess, for appreciating the original (but not nearly as much as the rest of Europe unfortunately).

  18. Oh I don’t know, just because Iain and I didn’t hear it doesn’t mean other people didn’t. And even if they didn’t, it could be that the issuing of the remix was the only thing that caused it to be given a fair crack of the whip in the first place, I don’t know.

  19. Alors on Danse is still played a lot AFAIK.

  20. “Island is launching a two-single approach at radio, with Tous Les Mêmes leading the charge, followed by Papaoutai – the original of which was Stromae’s lead single in France. It has since had a feature from Angel Haze added ready for UK radio.” – Hurray! (If it comes off.)

    (Link to some spammy aggregator because it’s a paywalled Music Week article, sorry.)