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Album Review: Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful

3 min read

South African artist Petite Noir, or Yannick Ilunga, is in equal parts chilled and fiercely determined, in both his progression as an artist, and in his sound. Working his way through various incarnations – from church guitarist to metalcore bands, through to electro and chill wave – Ilunga explored wide ranges of musical landscape before settling in his own style under the moniker Petite Noir. And nearly three years after his breathtaking debut release Til We Ghosts, this year finally sees the release of his debut full length album, La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful.

Petite Noir - La Vie Est Belle : Life Is BeautifulTaking an unhurried approach, Ilunga has clearly worked to his own schedule. But as they say, good things come to those who wait, and for Petite Noir those good things have come in the guise of a major label signing with Domino, collaboration with hip-hop legend Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and champions in the form of Solange Knowles and Spoek Mathambo.

Musically, Ilunga stands by Kanye West as his greatest influence – his 808s & Heartbreaks changed Ilunga’s whole perception of music, and the boundaries that could be broken. Growing up with the wealth of traditional African music, as well as absorbing American and European genres, Ilunga eventually arrived at a style that takes elements of electro and chill wave, combining them with the groove and shuffle of his native Africa. Coining the term “noirwave” to describe his music, it’s a name that fits surprisingly well, hinting at the serious intent and depth that underpins his light touch.

Synth heavy with throbbing bass and programmed beats, the rhythms throughout La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful syncopate and skitter with an unexpected pace and undeniable afro-beat styles. Kicking off with the instrumental Intro Noirwave a tribal dance beat overlaid touches of sound, exhalations and vocal musings is coupled with cymbal splashes suggesting an almost freeform, jazz style. Ilunga’s vocals range from a deep timbre up to feathery falsetto, slipping perfectly between the two on title track La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful. Creating a gorgeously refined sound, the album absolutely resonates with atmosphere and ambience. And combining exquisite detailing like the cheekily familiar refrain “You’re the one that I want / You’re the one that I need” on MDR. Also the unexpected, driving chorus and brass fanfare in Best, and the new wave inspired vocal and solo build at the heart of Down.

There is a haunting tone to Petite Noir, in the hypnotic vocals and dreamy instrumentation. But there is also an uplifting positivity; dance beats and funk inspired bass dominate. By both simultaneously acknowledging and shrugging off the politics of life and love, Ilunga takes a pragmatic approach to the hardships of life, which can be very real for young black artists, and for many in his native Cape Town. Ilunga seems to rise above the issues like racism and heartbreak without dismissing their reality. Both musically and lyrically, Petite Noir surpasses commentary with the beautiful, life affirming La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful.