La Vie Est Belle
Reviewed by: Max Miller
In an era when moods or vibes dominate the way we construct playlists and listen to music, Petite Noir refuses to be tacked down to anything so simple as “chill” or “summer cookout.” Yannick Ilunga, the South African musician behind the project, challenges any preconceptions a listener might have about his African background or even about his individual songs in relation to one another. On La Vie Est Belle, his debut LP, Ilunga combines house, synthpop, post-punk and afrobeat influences into the kind of adventurous, eclectic album that could top the Village Voice Pazz & Jop year-end poll.
The breadth of textures Ilunga incorporates is matched in impressiveness only by the seamlessness with which they intermingle. “Best” sounds like it could be a golden-era XTC or Tears For Fears b-side, but as straining horns bolster its coda, one can begin to hear the African tangents in the drumming that were previously masked. The seven-minute “Seventeen (Stay)” layers a dense network of rhythms and counter-rhythms, while Ilunga breaks out of his lower register to punctuate the song with glorious cries of “Stay there” over triumphant Balearic synths that eventually get their own solo moment, standing out starkly against the sudden absence of percussion like a forest of chirping tropical birds. He further explores the achingly beautiful corners of his higher range on album closer “Chess.”
Ilunga has a knack for danceable rhythms, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see extended remixes of tracks like “Just Breathe,” “MDR” or “Colour” in the near future. This certainly might help Petite Noir find a wider audience. The downside of the project’s uncategorizable sound is that it could make it easy for La Vie Est Belle to be overlooked. It can be a bit too reserved or obtuse for the more pop-inclined crowd, but at the same time not as out-there for the avant-garde appreciators to go gaga over. We live in a good age for musical risk-takers, however. Similarly experimental and unpredictable artists like FKA Twigs, Perfume Genius, Shamir and St. Vincent have been making strides across all levels of music consumption. There’s a good chance Petite Noir will resonate with more than just a few.