Journal De Bruxelles - Stromae is back and ready for world domination

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Stromae is back and ready for world domination
Stromae is back and ready for world domination

Stromae is back and ready for world domination

Stromae's mix of dancey beats, quirky style and hard-edged rap lyrics took him to the top of the charts in more than a dozen countries in the mid-2010s.

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But then the Belgian-Rwandan star all but disappeared from the limelight -- driven to the verge of suicide by severe burn-out.

It has been nine years since his last album, but to the relief of his millions of fans, his return on Friday with "Multitude" finds the artist in fighting form, showered with rave reviews and ready to break America.

"Welcome!" Stromae calls with a wide smile, pulling back the curtain in the secluded bar of a Paris hotel where he is meeting AFP.

There are none of the signs of depression, exacerbated by the effects of anti-malarial drugs, that brought him to his knees a few years ago at the end of an exhausting world tour.

The new album sets the mood with opening track "Invaincu" ("Undefeated") and the 36-year-old is revelling in his reborn ambition.

"I have a competitive side... even if I'm more subdued than before," he says.

"I see Billie Eilish, Aya Nakamura, Adele who are having mega hits, and I want to try to do the same, to measure up. It's ego."

But being Stromae, he's too thoughtful to let that idea take over: "It starts as a game, but then I realise there's plenty of room for all us. You can like Aya, Stromae, Billie, Adele -- it's not actually a competition."

- Hell -

Not that he has tried to hide his painful period in the wilderness -- far from it.

Comeback single "L'enfer" (Hell) has been hailed for its unflinching discussion of his suicidal thoughts.

"If it helps some people want to get help, that's great," he says.

But there's no self-pity or naval-gazing in this album.

Its tales are often fiercely political, such as "Riez" (Laugh) which compares the fame-and-fortune dreams of a singer, with a migrant's dreams of papers and a square meal.

Or "Fils de joie" (Son of joy) where he speaks as a prostitute's son, confronting a client, a cop and a pimp.

"The subjects that have nothing to do with you are sometimes easier to talk about," he tells AFP.

"That song came from watching a TV show about the children of sex-workers. I was really moved by the violence they experienced."

- 'Raise a glass' -

His desire to "speak of the invisible" is also in "Sante" (Cheers), another hugely popular single from the album.

It might sound like an upbeat party tune, with its brilliantly off-tempo dance riff.

But the lyrics are addressed to the shadow workers cleaning up after the privileged -- its chorus a call to "raise a glass to those who have not".

None of it descends into cheap sentimentality, however: even the ode to his three-year-old boy, "Rien que du bonheur" (Nothing but happiness), is less about love and more about vomit and poo.

Stromae's previous albums had already been eclectic affairs, but this time the pallette is even broader, embracing electro, Persian and Chinese flute, Peruvian guitars and much more.

"I'm a mash-up myself -- Rwandan father, Flemish mother," he says.

"My mother always had this desire to discover the world and she passed it on to me. But it took me a while to appreciate the music she liked. I hated Bolivian music 10 years ago, I love it now.

"She's been listening to Japanese music for a long time -- I'm still not ready," he adds with a laugh. "But maybe I'll try."

- 'Crossing my fingers' -

That said, he has his eyes set on one challenging goal: breaking America.

A major test comes next month when he headlines the Coachella festival in California.

"It wasn't my ambition in the early days to sing in French in a place like the US, which isn't used to listening to music in another language," he says.

"But I've always listened to songs in English -- not always understanding them but still being moved. I told myself it might work in the other direction."

His anxieties show a little as he discusses the Coachella gig.

"I'm crossing my fingers, we are trying to be fairly ambitious with the show. There are some robotic arms involved: too much wind and we won't be able to use them.

"I'm trying not to think about it too much," he adds with a nervous smile.