Blacklist, the new EP by rapper White-B, sees him tone things down – without selling out – in order to widen his audience.

White-B“I can’t deny that I’m feeling a bit of pressure, but I don’t want to rush things,” he told us last January in our report on 2019’s best emerging rap talents. Now that his latest work has been released, the 24-year-old artist fees more relaxed. “The one question that was constantly on my mind was, ‘Will people like it?’ Let’s be honest, this project is quite different from the previous one. That’s why I felt pressure.”

More on the pop tip than Confession risquée (Risky Confession) – his first solo mixtape, released in the fall of 2017 – Blacklist was produced more quickly. Which, at least in part, explains its increased artistic consistency. “Confession was a hodge-podge of songs I had for over a year,” says White-B. “This time around, I focused on my music for six months, and you can hear it in the musical evolution, my flows, and the melodies.”

He’s inspired by the new wave of extremely melodic French rap by artists like Ninho, Niska, and Koba LaD, but also by Québec’s street rap scene, spearheaded by rappers such as Souldia, Tizzo, and Enima. White-B has enlisted the support of several up-and-coming Montréal-based producers, notably Fifo and Birdzonthetrack. The latter played a key role in the creation of this release by providing the music behind five of the eleven new songs.

“Before I met him, I was having a hard time finding good instrumentals,” says the rapper. “I wanted to avoid buying licences on YouTube as I did before, but none of the meetings I had with beat-makers panned out. He sent me two instrumentals that I didn’t feel, initially, but I still knew that his style had depth. I sent him samples of songs that fit my style, melodic bangers, and he got back to me with the beats for ‘Solo’ and ‘Chacun son récit’ (‘To Each Their Own Story’). From that point on, it just happened really fast.”

On ‘Doué’ (‘Gifted’) and ‘Vien danser’ [sic] (‘Come Dancing’), White-B steps out of his comfort zone and adapts his flow to the kind of tropical rhythms that are in vogue lately. “I wanted to come up with more festive and danceable tracks,” he says. “The themes remain the same, but I figured that maybe that type of more accessible beat would take me further, like on the radio.”

Despite that, he didn’t succumb to cheesy pop ethos and went right back to his favourite themes: loyalty, money and ambition. Wanting to leave behind his dark past – rife with poverty and crime – he’s still grappling with the same duality that powered Confession risqué – that of an artist who, despite remaining on his guard about a system that’s given up on him since his high school days, still wishes to prosper and succeed in the world of music.

“I moved heaven and earth to get everything I didn’t have,” he confesses on ‘Chacun son récit,’ the first single from Blacklist. That sentence is typical of his state of mind. “I’ve always managed on my own, because I got used to having nothing,” he says. “My mom never bought me brand-name items, I never had cable TV before I was 18… In the end, I’ve always done everything I had to to get what I didn’t have. And I know the way to achieve that is to work hard.”

He carries on with this reflection on ‘Million,’ a song where he raps about his grand ambitions. “I was raised by my grandfather, who had three jobs and worked constantly,” says White-B. “Even today, at 80, he buys condos and flips them. He’s a major source of inspiration. Ever since I turned 10 years old, he’s told me that you always have to save up some money to have a safety net for your family. I didn’t pay any mind to it until I found myself in a rough financial situation. I needed a large amount of money and I realized how right my granddad was. Now, I always think about him.”

Now in a strong position to reach his goals, White-B is experiencing enviable success on YouTube and other streaming platforms. He raps that his “salary from music has tripled” (on ‘La nuit’ [‘The Night’]), has bigger ambitions than ever before, and admits being especially happy that the industry is finally accepting his type of rap. “I’m fully aware it’s far from over,” he says. “Millions of views are great, but they’re just views…That means continuing to work very hard. Whether you like it or not, labels like 7ième Ciel, and the success of a guy like Loud, does open doors for us. It’s good for everyone.”

Writing Requires Solitude
Even though he’s often found with his 5sang14 peers, White-B needs to be isolated in order to write. “I can write within the group, but I find it harder. It truly is when I’m alone, with my headphones on, that I write my best lyrics. Some rappers need light, but I feel more comfortable in darkness. It may sound peculiar, but I need a dark place to get into my zone and start writing.”

A regular at small venues, the rapper can now aspire to larger-scale shows – like the one he’ll give with his band 5sang14 at MTelus (formerly Metropolis) during the upcoming Francos festival, in Montréal. He does find it regrettable that the good health of the local rap scene is still undermined by stereotypes. He has memories of a few shows cancelled by promoters due to a lot of pressure from the police, notably one scheduled at Belmont in 2017. There’s also the stigma attached 5sang14, wrongly perceived as a street gang after the incarceration of one of its members, named Lost. All this has left a bitter taste in his mouth. The last-minute cancellation of a show he was supposed to give alongside Lost, during M for Montréal in the fall of 2018, offered a powerful demonstration that nothing should be taken for granted, not yet.

“I don’t understand that closed-mindedness, especially when you look at the rap scene in the States,” says White-B. “Whether it’s Eminem or anyone else, they rap about violence, drugs, weapons, the street, money… But if it’s a local rapper doing that, people are uncomfortable. I think that’s slowing down our industry. When you look at the economic uplift of a festival like Metro Metro, it’s obvious that the whole city benefits from it, whether it’s hotels, restaurants, or the taxi industry. We have to catch up, and slowly, all those people will realize all the money they lost in the meantime. Things are changing.”

Sometimes it’s impossible to put an artist into one succinct category or genre, and that’s okay. Freeman Young is the perfect example.

The Surrey, BC, artist – who once described himself as “pop with an urban touch” – has a sound as varied as his influences, which range from D’Angelo and Jai Paul to Radiohead and Nickelback. Young’s voice, a velvety-smooth texture imbued with a tender soulfulness, has landed him in the R&B realm in the past. But in an interview with Noisey, he warned, “You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself. Especially for Black artists, it’s important that you don’t corner yourself too early.”

It’s that flexibility and imagination that’s given Young a freedom to explore like he does on the Brotha Jason collaboration, “Brother,” where he flexes a more rap-like cadence; or when his singing takes centre stage on the grooving Raiel and Isaac Shah joint, “Wrong Turn.”

Outside of those tracks, Young’s music is hard to find online at the moment. Young, who garnered attention in 2016 with his debut album, Young, has since wiped the release from his Soundcloud and other streaming platforms. But the suspense is leading to something.

In 2017, he explained to Discorder Magazine that he removed his music because, “I’m just on something else now. I think you get a clearer understanding of what you want to communicate as time goes by… You can’t get nostalgic or too sentimental, even if it is your art, even if you put everything into it, it’s about what’s next.”

In October 2018, he made his next big step: signing to Republic Records. In an Instagram post, he shared the “wildly surreal” news adding that he’ll “be back sooner than later.” With any luck, 2019 could finally be the year that we receive a grand re-introduction to Freeman Young – because the little that’s left of him online has left us craving for more.

Philemon CimonBeau Dommage sang about Paris. Richard Desjardins sang about Abitibi. André “Dédé” Fortin sang about his beloved Lac-Saint-Jean, and Plume Latraverse, about Jonquière, with excuses. Even the great singer from France, Charles Trenet, sang about Québec. Strangely, though, before Philémon Cimon, nobody had made more room in their songs for Québec’s most spectacular region, Charlevoix –  “where I spent every summer when I was a kid,” Cimon recalls. That’s where his grandmother Lucile lived, and her voice can be heard on Pays, a roots album whose writing and recording were approached as a search for cultural identity.

Which doesn’t mean that the magnificent Charlevoix region was left out of our cultural memory altogether, the singer-songwriter points out. “I just believe that it was ‘sung’ differently,” he says.  “Félix-Antoine Savard’s novel  Menaud, maître draveur is set in Charlevoix. Lots of events depicted in our literature took place in that region: Laure Conan’s Angéline de Montbrun is set in a somewhat imaginary place, but one that is associated to Charlevoix, since the author hailed from La Malbaie herself. And then, of course, there’s [filmmaker] Pierre Perreault!”

So, the inexhaustible Cimon goes on, “there aren’t really any songs about Charlevoix that became popular, but when [anthropologist and folklorist] Marius Barbeau got interested in ethnography in the 1910s, he first spent time in Les Éboulements, where he collected five hundred songs – not only traditional songs sung in Charlevoix, but some that had been created there. It’s very strange; this is an important region for us folklorically, but today, there’s nothing.”

So Cimon decided to something about it with Pays, his fourth self-released album, recorded live inside the Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive church on four-track tape. One can hear the flickering of the tape during the silences that separate the guitar and piano notes, behind the combined voices of Cimon, Adèle Trottier, and Josianne Boivin. You can also hear the noises of the town coming in from outside, everything from Charlevoix’s panoramic train, as it passes by, to false notes, laughter, and bits of conversation.

Cimon explains that his main inspiration for Pays was Pierre Perreault, the legendary filmmaker whose ground-breaking direct cinema movie Pour la suite du monde had a determining influence on New Wave film. “I recognize myself a lot in Perreault’s approach,” says Cimon, whose “direct music” songs were written in Montréal, but meant to be recorded in that “pays”(“country”) that he’s trying to name, to paraphrase the songwriter (in “Les Pommiers envahis).

Thus, the approach is intrinsically linked to the writing and recording of the songs, as if they could only exist in this intimate, imperfect setting. Recording that way “means an experience that goes beyond the music itself,” says Cimon. “Ultimately, the song ends up at the service of the experience, and what’s being recorded is more than music – it’s life, as Perreault used to say.”

That experience becomes meaningful as part of a search for identity – that of the songwriter, and that of his country. “First of all, my country is not just Charlevoix,” says Cimon, who was born in the Limoilou district of Québec City. “It’s my own personal quest that led me to Charlevoix. Deep down, my country is my relationship with my roots. It’s an intimate, emotional country that necessarily includes Charlevoix because, when I was young, I experienced an enormous amount of beauty there. A large area to play in, a large area of wonder, above anything else.”

Cimon’s country isn’t political. Nor is it physical, not being defined by borders. “Beyond Baie-Sainte-Catherine, it’s still in my country,” he says.  “In Tadoussac, you’re no longer in Charlevoix, yet I still feel at home. My country is linked to my search for identity, so I went all the way back to my childhood, and all of a sudden, I went beyond that childhood. Because after travelling that far [in my quest], I felt like going back even further, to see if I could find something interesting there.”

What Cimon ended up finding inspired him. He met his own history, and that of Québec as well. “It does go back all the way to Jacques Cartier, that Frenchman from Bretagne who travelled everywhere,” he says. “It goes back to the First Nations, of course,” as illustrated in the album’s opening song, “Charlevoix ventre infini,” whose lyrics say in part “Domagaya stolen /Taignoagny stolen /Stadacona stolen /Oshelaga stolen…”