Born in Brussels and raised in South Africa by an Angolan mother and Congolese father, Petite Noir is the solo project of 25-year-old Yannick Ilunga. After starting out singing and playing guitar in church in Cape Town, he went on to join metalcore band Fallen Within. It was after hearing Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak in his teens that Ilunga began experimenting with music production software and writing his own songs. During this period he also kept himself busy by working with rapper and producer Spoek Mathambo, as well as forming electro-pop duo Popskarr with Terrence Pearce.
Ilunga’s first single as Petite Noir, “Till We Ghosts,” appeared in 2012, gaining the attention of Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Solange Knowles. After putting out a few more singles, he eventually released a five track EP titled The King of Anxiety at the end of January. It was very well received, serving as a preview of his songwriting capabilities ahead of his full length debut scheduled for later in the year. Despite the title, The King of Anxiety sounded anything but anxious, and instead was oozing with confidence. This pretty much continues on his full length debut, La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful.
Besides a tweaked version of “Chess” which featured on his EP, everything here is new. Upon listening it soon becomes apparent that Ilunga has been taking his time, slowly honing his style until he was ready to release a full length album. He calls his particular sound “noirwave,” or “new wave with an African aesthetic.” Pretension aside, it’s essentially a mix of genres and styles that includes art pop, electronica, African rhythms, some post-punk guitar, alternative R&B, soulful and diverse vocals, largely driven by active percussion and deep, prominent bass. Despite there being a lot different influences running through the album, it never feels overdone thanks to how well arranged and produced it all is.
“Seventeen (Stay)” is the longest track at seven minutes featuring a driving bass, busy percussion and a chorus that bursts out at you, before winding down into something more ambient and fading out for several minutes. “Just Breathe” has a strong element of TV on the Radio about it with its buzzing bass line, fantastic percussion and baritone vocals which then give way to a high-pitched chorus. The only real weak point on the album is “MDR” with its blatant Grease-like “You’re the One that I Want” chorus. The best is saved until last with six and a half minute album closer “Chess,” which builds patiently and seductively, filling up with layers and texture before energetic percussion takes over.
Ilunga has crafted a very assured debut, managing to blend a wide range of styles and influences into a seamless and sophisticated pop record which is carried along by a fantastic combination of percussion and bass. While the album is not without flaws, its strengths more than outweigh these across its eleven tracks. It’s undoubtedly among the strongest debuts of the year and will likely find itself on multiple end of year lists come December.
Released: 11 September 2015
Genres: Art Pop