There are as many influences on Petite Noir’s music as the singer/songwriter/producer has claims to nationality. The 27-year-old started life in Belgium as Yanick Ilunga, son to Congolese parents. He currently resides in Capetown, South Africa.
His first musical endeavor was as the lead singer for the duo Popskarr, with Terrence Pearce, from 2009-12. As you can hear in this single, “Tonight,” Popskarr was unabashed, old-school synthpop, with trippy, poetical lyrics that were more interesting than the music.
That equation changed once Petite Noir broke off as a solo act in 2012. He has brought an African sensibility to his own work – in texture, rhythmic ideas, instrumentation, and singing style – yet retained his synthpop roots. His music has been referred to as “alternative R&B,” and while it does sometimes use R&B tropes, that classification is not nearly wide enough.
“Disappear,” a single from 2012, is an example of this melding of sounds. There’s a slathering of late-ʼ80s electronica (think Erasure), including the mid-range head-voice that helps identify that era and style–as much like a cry as a musical tone; his voice is occasionally compared to mid-career Bowie. But the singing is nestled into complicated percussion tracks you’d never hear in synthpop. The lyrics are philosophical (“All we have in life will disappear”) if repetitive.
Petite Noir’s first solo EP was King of Anxiety, also from 2012. The song “Chess” uses a chugging, train-like perpetual rhythm and a melodic, mournful guitar counterpoint reminiscent of The Edge’s work in U2.
The slow beat of “Shadows” is the closest to R&B, but the groove is satisfyingly off-kilter. And the song’s budget-saving video is a brilliant way to really make you listen: It’s just footage of the singer leaning against his car, apparently for hours.
But, wait! There are even more influences in this musical cornucopia. African-American spirituals, anyone? Listen to “Till We Ghosts,” also from King of Anxiety. The lyrics are disappointingly cliché, but the overall sound is such an original blend that you can forgive the weak text.
Besides tinges of hymns and blues, we get polymeters and a timbre similar to the rattan ankle rattles used in many traditional dances of Africa. Add to that the multiple layers of guitar, backup vocals, and percussion, not quite in sync with each other; that purposeful imperfection is one of Petite Noir’s signature characteristics.
Not surprisingly, considering he’s based in Capetown these days, Petite Noir shows influence from music of that region. There’s a popular style of hip hop electronica in South Africa called kwaita that’s been around for a few decades. As with all hip hop, it layers pre-existing material, often a mix of the African and American. And like in Petite Noir’s tracks (which are original, not pre-existing), the rhythms are often layered in complex ways and don’t fit together perfectly. The rough edges add to the excitement:
In 2015 Petite Noir recorded his first (and so far, his only) full album, La vie è belle. His label, Double Six, also seems to have given him a better budget. Both the sound and the look are slicker. Frankly, some of the videos for this album are stunning.
The title track features Baloji – another Belgian of Congolese extraction — rapping in French along with Petite Noir sounding for all the world like Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode in the low-pitched melody.
The sounds and images of Africa are on spectacular display in “Best” and its accompanying video. But mix that with snare drum cadences and a horn section, plus the restricted melodic arc of a Smiths song, for a signature Petite Noir musical cocktail.
“Noirse” sets a melody (almost atonal at times, but I don’t think that’s on purpose, only his voice losing its way and sliding sharp) over a marimba or xylophone base, eventually adding in more conventional guitar and drums. Again, the lyrics have little to offer (“Tell me your secret. Why you so pretty?” – seriously?). But the underlying idea is so interesting that there is plenty to focus on and appreciate.
I look forward to a day when this songwriter joins forces with a lyricist whose gift for writing original words match Petite Noir’s as a musician and producer. The results will be probably something to take our collective breath away.