I always wondered why cloud rap never really took off. The genre’s heyday of like, five years ago, was a fascinating departure from the mainstream, which itself was at a rather dull point, as it straddled the end of the era of Wayne and the trap boom. Clams Casino and the magical Bay Area rapper Lil B were the genre’s pioneers, with the former having the biggest influence on the genre’s trademark hazy, lo-fi sound. Music writers collectively increased their use of the word “ethereal” one thousand-fold and never looked back. The sounds of cloud rap were also plastered all over A$AP Rocky’s debut Live.Love.ASAP and the music of the Swedish rapper Yung Lean. But then after 2014, it was swept away by the Chief Keefs and Young Thugs of the world, never to be heard of since.
It turns out it had just had a premature midlife crisis and moved to France. More precisely, a duo of Frenchmen from the troubled “banlieues” of Paris had decided to carry its flame. The duo PNL (Peace and Lovés) has seen a meteoric rise to arguably become the Francophone world’s most popular hip-hop group. Little is known about the members Ademo and N.O.S. themselves, beyond the fact that their real names are Tarik and Nabil and that they are from the banlieues. Their social media profiles are sparse, with little other than announcements about new releases.
Their appeal is readily apparent in their two biggest hits, “Le monde ou rien” (“The world or nothing”) and “Oh lala.” The instrumentals for both are classic cloud rap, with washed-out synthesizers and little else save for snippets of guitar licks. The pair, heavily autotuned, rap about the depressing realities of life in the heavily segregated and neglected Parisian suburbs, mostly comprised of immigrants from North and West Africa. The chorus of “Le monde ou rien” sums it up in a way that is simultaneously nihilistic and easy to chant along to at a concert. Ademo sings, “J’suis dans ma bulle, bulle, bulle / Oh shit, le shit, le shit, bulle / Sang sur l’pull, pull, pull, olala olala / Dégage ton boule, boule, boule” (“I’m in my bubble, bubble, bubble / Oh shit, the hash, the hash is bubbling / Blood on my sweater, sweater, sweater, oh my my, oh my my”). Like much of their music, there is a mixture of reservation towards the reality of their situation (“I’m in my bubble”), a clever turn of phrase towards something like drug dealing (“Le shit bulle” roughly translating to “The hash bubbles”) and a threatening command to simply get out of the duo’s lives.
Another common reference is towards the sanctity of family unity, represented in one the group’s slogan “QLF” (“Que la famille,” “for the family”). The videos for these two singles are fitting as well, with “Le monde ou rien” taking place in the equally neglected suburbs of Naples, and “Oh lala” allowing the brothers to flex in the otherworldly landscapes of Iceland. In the videos and the songs themselves, the duo portrays a mixture of confidence and bravado, necessary to navigate the world around them, but also a sense of vulnerability and desperation. The moments of self-reflection and awareness are unique and emotional, such as when Ademo sings, “J’rentre, coke dans les poches, quand p’tit frère part à l’école” (“I come back home with coke in my pockets while my little brother leaves for school”).
PNL’s wide appeal mostly stems from its sheer catchiness and production. However, digging deeper reveals skillful and poignant observations about life in the neglected immigrant communities of European metropolises such as Paris (and really, around the world), areas which many have strong opinions of, but which receive little assistance with stopping the cycle of poverty and hopelessness.