Stromae, Belgian musician and pop star extraordinaire, looked out into the large Madison Square Garden crowd and smiled with delight: “New York City!” he yelled, as the venue erupted with applause. The energy in the house popped the way his matching black-and-white cardigan and socks did as he seamlessly transitioned from a multi-lingual speech to his catchy tune “Alors on Danse.”
Born in Brussels and raised by a single mother, Stromae (real name Paul van Haver) developed a love for world culture and all different kinds of music at a young age; eventually, he began rapping under the name Opsmaestro, which he eventually shortened to Stromae, a flipped spelling of “maestro.” His overall musical style is made up of a similar flipping of electropop, hip-hop, Cuban son, and rumba that shook MSG from the pit to the rafters.
Even before Stromae took the stage, Jidenna and Janelle Monae from Wondaland Records brought their multifaceted styles to the stage. I can’t remember the last time I heard any crowd sing an artist’s song *in sync*, but the undeniable summer hit “Classic Man” was the clearest I’ve heard in some time; Jidenna didn’t even need a microphone for that one. Monae, the matriarch of Wondaland Records, flaunted her full band for a handful of songs, including a cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and her Jidenna-assisted hit “Yoga.”
But the night undoubtedly belonged to Stromae’s dazzling stage show. If he wasn’t accompanying his four-piece band on synth drums or keyboard, he was bounding across the stage in between elaborate costume changes and extended talks with the audience. “I have a problem…the first thing I ate when I came to America was a burger – what else?” Stromae laughed. “But that wasn’t my problem. The problem was next to the burger. The “French” fries! Fries are from Belgium!” A Belgian flag flew in the middle of the pit and the crowd went nuts.
This irreverent yet optimistic energy flowed throughout the night as Stromae powered through songs, most from his red-hot 2013 album Racine Carrée (“square root” in English), like the punchy horn ballad “tous les memes” and the ukulele-backed salsa jam “ave cesaria,” and a few cuts from his debut project Cheese like “Silence” and “danse.” The highlight of the night came during the encore of the show, when Stromae, inside a life-sized doll box, was rolled back onto the stage to perform “papaoutai,” a thumping dance anthem underscored by the story of a young boy looking for his father (Stromae’s father was killed in the Rwandan genocide of 1994), and the high emotion was palpable as the crowd bounced up and down in lock step with the maestro at work.
Being the first French-singing artist to headline Madison Square Garden was already emotional enough as it was, but the enthusiastic crowd support and electric performance swelled everyone’s hearts as Stromae worked his way through an exhaustive list of thank you’s. “Merci” was the theme of the night; American fans ready to embrace pop, no matter what language, brought Stromae to our shores in the first place, and everyone in Madison Square Garden fed off of the europop symbiosis.
Photo Credit: Dati Bendo