In early 2010s, he was one of the biggest French-speaking artists in the world, but then he suddenly stopped. Now he’s ready to resume his spot at the top – and is as controversial as ever
A few months ago, Paul Van Haver, better known as the Belgian singer-songwriter/rapper Stromae, announced his comeback. In the French-speaking world, this was big news. As the 00s turned into the 2010s, Stromae had established himself as one of the biggest Francophone artists in the world. He sold 8.5m albums. His single Alors On Danse went to No 1 in 19 countries: in 2010, it was the most-played French-language song in the world. Its level of success was almost freakish, leading to the assumption that he was, as he puts it, “a one-hit wonder … when you have a hit people say it’s going to be the only hit in your life”.
But he wasn’t. His second album, 2013’s Racine Carrée, spent five years in the French chart: it was the best-selling album of the year twice on the trot. He was critically acclaimed for a kaleidoscopic sound that takes in everything from Congolese soukous to knowingly cheesy Europop to the mordant chanson of his countryman Jacques Brel, an unpredictable mishmash that he thinks is rooted in his peripatetic childhood. His largely absent father was Rwandan – he was killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide – and his Belgian mother was an inveterate traveller. “Sometimes we loved it and sometimes it was pretty close to a nightmare, because we didn’t have a lot of money, so they weren’t all-inclusive vacations,” he says. “Sometimes good memories, sometimes really bad, but memories you don’t forget.”