La Vie Est Belle is a fun and playful record.
Once, as the famous ad said, there was old wave, there was new wave and there was David Bowie. Now Noirwave stands to join the ranks, and it’s a joy to hear.
“Just Breathe,” the sixth track on Petite Noir’s debut record, La Vie Est Belle (Life Is Beautiful) begins with a lyric that seems like a well-worn platitude. “She said be the change you want to see/ Breathe the air you would like to breathe.” When Yannick Ilunga, South African expat and current London resident who performs under this moniker, is this change, breathing a synthesis of Afropop melodies and new wave instrumentation into one of the year’s most exciting debuts.
Ilunga moved around a lot as a child, and perhaps the resulting cultural exchange gives the record its particular flavor. Earlier this year Ilunga told The Fader, “The whole world feels like home. Before anything, there weren’t all these borders. And to me, wherever I am, I know who my family is. I know where I come from, I know where I wanna go.”
La Vie Est Belle is a fun and playful record. Ilunga’s influences range from the mid-’00s English alt-rock of “Seventeen (Stay),” to the musical Grease, whose lyrics are borrowed for the “You’re the one that I want/ You’re the one that I need” chorus of “MDR.” None of this feels particularly egregious; Ilunga cites 808s & Heartbreak as the record that got him to stop recording metal and start experimenting.
It’s not a perfect record. The title track drags and Ilunga’s lyrics are kind of slight. There isn’t a killer single; the songs work better in the context of an album. But perhaps what’s most exciting about this record is its potential to influence the future of music.
As he told The Fader, Ilunga is out to try and challenge popular thinking about African artists: “[t]he way we’re trained to think is that everything that’s white is forward-thinking.” As it’s stood for much of history, white artists have received a great deal of credit for being at the forefront of musical invention, even when they’ve been nakedly cribbing from black artists, no matter if it’s as obviously as a band like Led Zeppelin or as subtle as a group like Vampire Weekend has done.
There’s something liberating about new wave’s styles and influences ending up in the hands of an artist as talented and as different from the origins of the genre as Ilunga. In making La Vie Est Belle, he’s attempting to restore the futurism at the heart of the new wave genre, and make it accessible and inclusive for all creators. He wants this to be high art, and it absolutely is.