IIn 2019, an unknown rapper dropped his first single on YouTube. So far, so normal. Only this time, the rapper was flitting seamlessly between English and fluent French. The video for “Bella Latina” was relatively low-quality, just something shot in his hometown of him. But the raw talent was impossible to overlook. “My guy passed French A Levels,” one fan joked, while another remarked: “I don’t even know what he’s saying and I’m getting gassed.”
Since then, bilingual rapper French the Kid has established himself as one of the most unique and talented young artists in the UK. Yet it’s taken the 22-year-old, who prefers to keep his real name quiet, a trip or two round the world to get here.
“I feel like I’m more vulnerable now,” he tells me of his growing fame. We’re sitting in the outdoor bar area of a London hotel; he’s hunched over the table, trying to make himself less noticeable. People passing by the street entrance keep confusing it for a public space, and every time someone wanders in, he twitches. It’s starting to happen more often, the 22-year-old says, referring to the fans who recognize him from one of several viral videos. Before, when he was getting up to what we’ll call “questionable antics”, it was a different kind of encounter he worried about. But that’s all behind him.
He was born in Harold Hill, Essex, to an Irish mother and a father who spent much of French’s childhood in and out of prison. There’s a common misconception that he hails from a traveler background – in fact he just grew up with Essex’s large traveler community for neighbours. Around 2009, the family temporarily relocated to Australia for his stepdad’s work, before moving to France, just outside of Toulouse, when he was nine years old. “It was mad,” he says, of being placed in a local school where he didn’t speak the language. It was a steep learning curve, but being immersed so quickly in another culture likely helped rather than hindered him. “At the start I had to prove myself – they proper hate English people,” he says of his classmates. There were a few scraps, but nothing he couldn’t handle: “Me and my older brother used to scuffle all the time, I loved it,” he says. “Anyway, half of my friends there weren’t even French, they were Moroccan, Algerian…”
It was here that French was exposed to the thriving hip-hop scene of his new home, listening to acts such as the duo PNL, and the Marseille-born rappers Jul and SCH. The huge influence of North African sounds on hip-hop in the country – largely ignored by the media until the advent of streaming – has clearly had an impact on his music, too. Like the Andrieu brothers of PNL, who are of Algerian heritage, French has a morose-yet-melodic flow that is strangely hypnotic, almost like a lullaby, adding inflections to certain syllables. Despite his newfound passion, however, he was quickly growing bored of small-town life. I have started to get into mischief: “I took the p***.” He loves gangster films, and perhaps envisaged himself as one of those characters as he became involved in dubious local scenes. “I hardly ever got caught though,” he says, with a bashful grin. “I feel like something, someone, was watching over me.”
His mum gave him a choice ahead of his exams: if he passed, he could go and live with his dad, in England. If he failed, she’d let him join the army. “I was so bad in school, I was a little s***, and I had a lot of energy,” he says. Somehow, he scraped his exams, but living with his dad did not turn out the way he’d planned. “I wasn’t there for long,” he says. “I think we’re very similar, and so we didn’t get on.” Then a friend was accepted at the University of Greenwich, and told French to come and crash with him. “So I did my music sofa-surfing [phase],” he says, grinning. To him, it was paradise: “I had the uni life, but I wasn’t doing the course.” He began doing odd jobs while living between halls of residence and his ex-girlfriend’s place, installing air conditioning, labouring, working in construction… It wasn’t until three years ago that he started rapping, and even then, he kept up with his other jobs. “Two incomes, do you know?” He’s currently renovating the house he lives in with his girlfriend and their dog, Lola. His granddad of him is helping out, and telling him what he’s doing wrong.
It’s taken over two years for French to release his debut mixtape, Never Been Ordinary, but it’s finally out. Fans will surely agree it was worth the wait. It’s an astonishing, carefully considered work, with piano-based tracks like opener “Mercy”, which will remind the listener of Mercury Prize-winner Dave, and the jittery, anxiety-inflected “My Mind”. There’s a nod to his mother’s heritage via the Irish-accented violin on closer “Thrill”. He sings in a gruff tenor over a pared-back trap beat on “Neverland” and, on single “Make It Out”, demonstrates how he can slip seamlessly between languages, delivering a deceptively beautiful-sounding warning: “Touche l’un de mes frères j’mets d’l’argent sur ta tète/ J’te promets l’ak47 envoie des balles come une letter/ Et ma belle ne t’inquiète pas chui dans la street c’est la vie/ Elle aime les gangsters , aime les râpeurs et ces beautiful mélodies.” Which translates as: “Touch one of my brothers, I’ll put money on your head / I promise you the AK47 will send bullets like a letter / And, my beautiful, don’t worry, I’m on the street, that’s life / She likes gangsters, likes rappers and those beautiful melodies.”
Before French arrived for our interview, his manager told me how he had to convince him to continue releasing bilingual tracks. He did not want it to be a gimmick, but he also worried that audiences might be less receptive to a language they did not understand. “I think English people are very selfish,” he shrugs. “That’s the problem. I think when it comes to music, they have to understand it.” Right as he says this, the group of teenagers who have taken a seat behind him begin playing music from a small Bluetooth speaker. The song sounds a lot like French rapper Ninho; after the track finishes, it goes straight into an English-language hip-hop track. French’s face is a picture – for a moment he looks convinced this is a set-up. But no. It’s just proof, I say, that he has nothing to worry about. I laugh.
He was nervous at the beginning of our interview, but now he seems relaxed, confident. “I’m not worried about anything,” he says. He’s still unsigned – Never Been Ordinary is being released as part of a distribution deal with Warner. Would he sign to a major? He shakes his head: “I’ve only heard bad things about labels. What’s the point? And he’s clearly doing fine without one, uneasy as he is about his growing fame: “I just do n’t like it.” He admits he can find it hard to trust people. “But I think everyone’s like that,” he says. “[This is] just a lifestyle change. And if you’ve got good people around you, you’ll figure it out.”
‘Never Been Ordinary’, the debut mixtape from French the Kid, is out now