After a decade behind the scenes, Stromae is here to have fun
“I’m not running after anything anymore,” the Belgian artist says of his new album, ‘Multitude.’
Stromae has always been drawn to the idea of embodying characters in his songs. On “Formidable,” a single from his 2013 sophomore album Racine carreé (French for Square Root), the Belgian singer-rapper-producer depicts a man who gets shitfaced in the throes of a breakup. For the video, he played the character, stumbling around in front of confused commuters and police officers at the Louise train station in Brussels. But his writing is too empathic to be passed off as mere camp. Yes, this man is swaying through the street and harassing different people — a single woman, a married man, a child — about their understandings of love, but his projections come from a place of real hurt. The song’s hook plays on the phonetic similarities between the French words “formidable” (wonderful) and “fort minable” (pathetic), with the latter also leaning on his character’s implied inability to have children. It’s a bittersweet moment made all the more potent by the deep bass drums and string swells begging listeners to dance.
“Formidable” and songs like “Tous les Mêmes” — which is told from the perspective of a woman tired of the dating scene — illuminate Stromae’s gifts as a character-oriented storyteller, but are ultimately isolated moments on Racine carreé. Much of the emphasis in Stromae’s earlier music revolved around his fascination with folding hip-hop tropes and weighty subject matter (the AIDS epidemic on “Moules frites,” his own personal struggle with fatherlessness on “Papaoutai”) into colorful nuggets of dance and electropop. But on his latest album Multitude — his first in nearly a decade — he expands his worldbuilding skill on both a musical and literary scale.
“There are so many stories to tell and it’s easier for me to be in someone else’s shoes and tell their story,” he tells Mic via Zoom from Los Angeles. “I don’t think my life is so interesting. I prefer to just write scenarios like a director, you know? And then act it out like an actor. As a performer and as a fan of other artists, I don’t really like when they show their private lives. I don’t feel really good about it. My job is to tell stories.”
In all fairness, many aspects of Stromae’s own story are well-documented at this point. The son of a Flemish mother and a Rwandan father who was murdered during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he grew up fascinated by music from all over the world: Congolese rumba rubbed shoulders with electronic music and hip-hop from artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, and G. Dep (“‘Special Delivery’ was something I’d listen to every day or every week”). His taste for music from around the world was further codified by trips he would take with his mother to South America and Africa. Those influences were always present in Stromae’s music, but they wouldn’t become prominent until years later.
“When you start to become a hater, that usually means it’s time to make your own music.”
After an extensive Racine carreé world tour and a health scare involving anti-malaria medication, Stromae spent much of the late 2010s working behind the scenes. He embraced another lane of creativity through his fashion label and production house Mosaert, which he co-founded with his wife Coralie Barbier and brother Luc Van Haver in 2009. Through Mosaert, Stromae released clothing capsules and directed music videos for Dua Lipa (“IDGAF”) and Billie Eilish (“hostage”). It was shortly after the videos were released in 2018 that Stromae’s own creative itch started to come back, when he noticed he was becoming “jealous” of other artists. “When you start to become a hater, that usually means it’s time to make your own music,” he says with a laugh.
The musical direction for Multitude came together through an unintended sense of forward-thinking. Stromae had composed the beat for opening song “Invaincu” during the Racine carreé sessions, but it was ultimately left on the cutting room floor until this new album came together. “It was more in the color of this album, so I kept it for later,” he explains. “Maybe that’s the reason it’s the only song with a kick drum on every bar. It’s more close to what I was used to doing back in the days.”
Multitude doesn’t dwell in the past for long, its production branching further from the electropop of his past. Music from the different corners of South America Stromae visited as a child, and other areas he’s taken to as an adult, are foundational to its sound: Andean charango and Venezuelan tres, which are stringed instruments similar to guitars, plink in the background of tracks “Mauvaise journeé” and “Mon Amour,” respectively; Persian ney flute bolsters the synth patterns of “Pas Variment” while erhu — a Chinese violin — adds soothing notes to the deep bass of “La Solassitude.” Stromae also cites film composer Hans Zimmer, especially his score for the 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar, as inspiration (“Every soundtrack he’s made is so good”).
These elements give his music a grander sense of scale than before, covering more ground with less movement. When I ask why he felt now was the best time to let some of these influences loose, his answer was simple: his tastes have evolved, and he’s tired. “I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic and the lockdown, but I haven’t gone into the clubs anymore,” he explains. “Maybe I’m too old to dance to dance music. I prefer more chill and relaxed music these days. It was less EDM music [on this album], which is a little bit exhausting sometimes.”
This new clash of regional styles with Stromae’s own arc through music dovetails with Multitude’s cavalcade of stories. Across the album, Stromae embodies selfish lovers (“La Solassitude,” “Mon Amour”) and characters grappling with their mental health (“Mauvaise journeé,” “L’Enfer”). On more than one occasion, he plays multiple characters in the same song — take the tortured couple at the center of “Pas Variment” or the saga involving a sex worker, her pimp, a police officer, and the sex worker’s young son on “Files de Joie.” Even when he’s not deliberately playing a character, Stromae’s attention is at least focused on others, like the ode to blue-collar workers — and admonishment of people who take advantage of them — on the single “Santé.” “I put 20-30% of myself in there because it’s my point of view, of course,” he says. “But I like to amplify other lives in there. I think that’s more interesting.”
Only a handful of the album’s 12 songs directly involve Stromae in the first person: tellingly, they’re mostly about the bittersweet realities of parenting his three-year-old son (“C’est que du bonheur,” which translates to “This is happiness”) and acknowledging the burdens that women — and specifically his wife and creative partner Barbier — bear throughout society on “Déclaration.” When I ask Stromae if he feels utilizing his platform is a duty, he answers by digging further into the significance of “Santé.” Several names are mentioned in the song’s first verse as a tribute to the workers many take for granted, but at least one of them is an actual person: Rosa. “Rosa is the woman who cleans my house every week,” Stromae reveals. “And I was like ‘Okay, let’s have a tribute to them, the ones who aren’t celebrating when we’re not partying. Let’s have a toast for them.’” It might seem like a small gesture, but there’s power in being recognized and shouted out on a song with over 53 million plays on Spotify alone.
Even considering the heavy subject matter, Stromae hasn’t forgotten that the primary function of his music is to entertain. The jokes and satire that poked around the edges of Racine carreé land more aggressively on Multitude, mostly from his male characters’ overblown chauvinistic tendencies and stories of having to change his baby’s diaper. He briefly laments that his music is more “chill” than it used to be, especially compared to the high-energy songs from Racine carreé that required, as he puts it, “exhausting” amounts of choreography. But the danceable qualities are still there—albeit subtler and more refined than before—and he’s just as excited to show them off in his upcoming live shows across North America and Europe: “It’s important to have a beautiful show, but I also like having free moments in my show. If I want to dance, I’ll dance. If I want to just stand up and stay onstage and not dance, I don’t dance. That’s so priceless, to have fun and entertain at the same time.”
Near the end of our conversation, I ask Stromae — musician, rapper, fashion designer, husband, and new father — about the biggest difference between him in 2013 and today. After a brief pause, the answer spills out of him: “I’m not running after anything anymore. I have a more balanced life. In both my personal life and onstage, I want to have more fun.” Fun is a tough commodity to come by during a global pandemic, but through examining others’ stories and taking stock of his own, Stromae is ready to write out his next chapter.