One year after the release of Couvre-feu, his subliminally violent first mixtape, MB is broadening his horizons and contemplating a more pop-oriented mainstream rap style, a change of approach that’s both surprising and calculated.
“You ain’t seen the real MB yet,” says, the 24-year-old rapper as we point out the marked differences between his sombre Couvre-feu and his catchy “Pour la vie,” a rai– and Latino-influenced song, powered by a video that’s amassed more than 1.4 million views since its January 2018 release.
“Actually, I wanted to evolve,” he says, “and that was triggered by my mom, when I watched her dance to the instrumental version of Pour la vie when she heard it for the first time. That’s when I realized that rap music isn’t just for young folks. We’re able to move anyone.”
With a musical flow straddling rap and R&B, “Pour la vie” is a song where the Montréal-based artist comes to terms with his difficult relationships with women. MB proclaims his single status and financial independence in verses like “You’re only gonna have me for one night/Afterward, I’ll be chasing money” – indicating that he has more important things to do than keep a relationship going.
“People are going to say I’m going macho, but that’s not it,” he explains. “It’s just that right now, I know I can’t have a stable relationship because I’m throwing all my energy into my career. It’s taken me five years to understand what I am actually doing… So I can’t see myself with someone else.”
Filled with questions and challenges, the past five years have proven beneficial for MB. He was first discovered by the rapper Lost (a.k.a. JBZ), who encouraged MB to publish his songs instead of keeping his lyrics to himself. The Algerian-originating rapper started to develop a following, by participating in countless freestyle sessions with his friends in schoolyards and soccer fields in the northern part of Montréal (including the Ahuntsic, Villeray, Parc-Extension and Cartierville neighbourhoods). After meeting many other artists at those sessions, MB formed the 5sang14 collective, along with steadfast allies Lost, White-B, Gaza and Random.
“It’s a rap movement of young people, not a street gang, contrary to what many people think,” MB says, referring to the actions of a judicial system that once prevented Lost from joining the collective after he’d spent some time in jail. “Music took us off the street, actually. As a musician, I’m not liable to get up and shoot anybody!”
During his teenage years, as a fan of Arabic rap music, and of iconic French (from France) rappers like Youssoupha, MB started with a rap style that was very technical, and supported by very rigorous lyrical structure. His Couvre-feu mixtape, which was largely written and recorded in 2016, is a product of a stormy period – marked by his love at the time for that rigid, somber rap style. “That’s what my life felt like. I was very withdrawn,” he says.
It was a recording session that changed MB’s musical approach, the one for “Vamos”, a song with deep tropical influences that marks a new direction on Couvre-feu. “I discovered that I had a voice and that I was able to control it,” says MB. “It was Alex Papineau, the album producer, who gave me the confidence to put it forward. He opened my mind.”
That new artistic flowering led to a complete change of mind-set. Instead of continuing to evolve slowly, in parallel with the Québec music industry, MB surrounded himself with a trustworthy and stable team, including a manager and a press agent. “The street mind-set means that you distrust the industry,” he says. “People who grew up on the street only know one model: getting rich at the expense of others, and trusting no one. Rappers are often so marginalized that they don’t understand that they need society. Personally, I changed my outlook on all of this by hanging out with older people, reading books, learning how to understand the system… I’ve built a train, and now I’m ready to let it rip.”
So far, the results are encouraging. Besides the buzz he’s creating on YouTube and the streaming platforms, MB is now getting the best live dates of his fledgeling career. Besides an upcoming June 23, 2018, performance at Club Soda with 5sang14, he’s scheduled for an appearance at the 30th edition of Francos de Montréal, at SOCAN’s invitation, where he’ll share the stage with the pop singer AMÉ on June 13.
“This is something I’d wanted for a long time,” he says. “And, once again, it’s due to all the work we did. It’s always up to us to approach programmers and industry people, because staying at home and doing nothing is not how opportunities like these are going to happen.”
With the release of an EP and a mixtape scheduled for the fall, the rest of the year promises to be equally exciting. And, unlike many of his peers, MB keeps his goals realistic, and wants to break out locally before tackling the market in France, an El Dorado highly coveted in the Québec hip-hop community.
“People often tell me that I would be more likely to break out over there, in spite of the fact that, proportionally, there are just as many talented French-speaking rappers,” he says. “Personally, my audience is largely located in Montréal for the time being, so my vision and my strategy are focused [on that audience]. France isn’t really a personal goal… In fact, Algeria remains much more important for me.”