MC Solaar was, for a time, the biggest hip-hop star in France. That may not sound like much of a claim, but his translations (both musical and linguistic) of hip-hop have been instrumental in internationalizing the form, and his recordings-including guest spots on other artists’ albums-have given him substantial cachet among America’s rap cognoscenti.
Born Claude M’Barali in Dakar, Senegal, the Paris-based Solaar won acclaim as the first rapper en français after the release of his “Bouge de La” single in 1990. That song, along with two subsequent French radio hits, is included on Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo, an album on which his fluid phrasing vies with what — in this country — would be the best samples money could buy, rendering it unreleasable here. Still, the title track found its way to Tommy Boy’s Planet Rap compilation, and “Caroline” was included on the first volume of 4th & B’way’s The Rebirth of Cool series. The groundswell of US street notoriety culminated on Guru’s first Jazzmatazz album, to which Solaar contributed “Le Bien, le Mal.”
With all samples cleared, Prose Combat was released just as hip-hop’s taste for jazz was passing its peak. Still, it’s a stylistically assured, sophisticated record on a par with any issued that year. Solaar has skills — his slick, swiftly delivered rhymes merit comparison to the storied likes of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane — and, more importantly, presence. Because his French is even more impenetrable than hip-hop slang, you can’t help but focus on the rhythm of Solaar’s phrasing; when combined with the richly textured jazz cool unspooled by DJ Jimmy Jay, the result is like great scat singing.