Things have changed for Kevin Saint-Laurent – a.k.a. Souldia – since 2014, the year that saw the release of his cutting third album, Krime grave. The ex-convict who, in the past, proclaimed having “a hard time following orders” is now stuck at home, obeying the self-isolating orders of his premier. “It took a pandemic to stop me!” he says, amused. “But for real, it’s the first time in I don’t know how long that I’ve had a whole month off.”
Don’t miss the discussion our Editor Eric Parazelli had with Souldia about the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, to the left.
In this case, however, it’s a well-deserved pause. On top of the 13 albums he’s released over the last decade, either solo, in a duo, or in a group, Souldia has worked very hard since the release of Survivant with about 50 shows in 18 months. “They weren’t your average shows, either, I played the biggest stages I have so far and I headlined festivals…”
Hence the very simple title of this new offering, a significant one that arrives at a crucial moment in the rapper’s career. “Backstage represents the year I’ve just had,” he says. “I wrote all of it on the road, or in the green room. It’s the story of my life behind the scenes. I was never down with persona rap, with rappers that separate their rap from their reality. In my case, it’s almost a problem how true it all is.”
We’re miles away from pointless ditties about champagne, girls, and parties that the album title might represent; rather, it’s a new chapter in the rapper’s diary which he’s been writing, on-and-off, since 2009’s embryonic Art Kontrol. Here, we once more find Souldia traumatized by violence, and trying to escape reality through music and legal drugs. “I think of myself as deeply traumatized,” he says. “I got out of the streets, but I’ll have to deal with shady stories for the rest of my life, because the people in my life didn’t just disappear. Sometimes I look back and I’m, like, ‘Wow! I’m so glad I got out and made other life choices.’”
“Mélomane,” one of the many singles released ahead of the album, is about the contrast that will probably always be a part of who Souldia is. Having escaped the underworld of the streets of Limoilou (a working-class neighbourhood of Québec City), the rapper mixes sordid flashbacks with insights on the importance of music in his life. “Entre faire la musique et vendre la drogue/Le choix n’est pas facile faut ramener la money/Identifier le corps de son frère criblé de balles en train de pourrir à la morgue,” the artist raps in his calm and incisive flow. (“Choosing between making music and selling drugs/ Isn’t as easy as it seems, you need to make money/ Hiding your brother’s decaying, bullet-ridden body at the morgue”) .
“Sometimes I’ll find inspiration in a conversation I had with a friend,” he says. “I call to see how he’s doing, and he tells me he had to ID his brother at the morgue. Then I’m in the studio and I write about it. I’m like a sponge… It’s like I carry the baggage of all what those guys tell me about. That’s why I feel so liberated when I release an album. I’m getting rid of that baggage.”
Yet, it can sometimes be confusing. Whether it’s brutal videos (like the one for “Mélomane,” where we see a huge drug operation that ends in a bloodbath), or some clearly more aggressive productions (notably the repeated firearm sound effects in the chorus of “SKRAB”), Souldia is at ease with his penchant for violent images. “But you need to see there’s a limit to all that,” he claims. “If you pay attention to my lyrics, it’s clear I don’t condone using drugs or descending into a world of violence. I put basic values forward.”
Without going as far as reciting them like rosaries, notions such as sharing, resilience, respect, and loyalty permeate wide swathes of Souldia’s output, and even more so on this new album. “I try to find a balance,” he says. “If the album feels too dark, I’ll re-balance it by adding a song, or cutting one out. It’s a new way of doing things for me. Before, I’d go in the studio and just record what was on my mind, that’s it.”
“Magnifique” is one of those songs that brings some light to the album. “T’étais le meilleur papa du monde quand t’étais présent,” Souldia confides, in a touching text about his late father, who also led a life of crime (“You were the best dad in the world, when you were around”). “That took me a long time to write,” says Souldia. “I still have open wounds about my dad. When he died in 2011, I’d just gotten out of prison. There was a ton of things happening in my life and I didn’t have time to grieve. What I did instead was drink two bottles of cognac per show, straight from the bottle. I drank his death for four years, it was all a blur… That song helped me find peace with all of it. I hope it touches people.”
Such is the noble mission of an artist who, every day, gets hundreds of messages on social media. Messages from people who identify with his music and who, sometimes, manage to “get out of the mess they’re in.” “I feel like my job is done when I read stuff like that,” he says proudly, and with good reason.
It’s those people he addresses on “Invité mystère,” where he declares that to him, music is a “small, human way to make yourself useful.” It’s the type of softness- and light-filled sentence that would’ve been surprising coming from Souldia just a few years ago. “I’m evolving on the human level,” he says. “I don’t stop myself from writing what I feel, and I don’t censor myself, and I’m aware that there are several ways to send a message. I think more about the way what I say is going to be received.”
The album’s musical direction – Souldia produced it, alongside Christophe Martin and Farfadet – also mirrors this more balanced approach: the basslines are heavy and the beats striking, yet the piano melodies are emotional and sensitive. His typical melancholy trap is more fine-tuned. Except for a few refreshing touches like the flute in “Sexto,”
or the afro-trap rhythm of “Les Derniers seront les premiers,” Backstage is by far the most consistent album Souldia has released since the caustic Krime grave, which was produced by Ruffsound. “That’s in large part due to my team,” he says, citing his new sound engineer (Christophe Martin) and his new label, Disques 7 ième Ciel.
This changing of the guard was necessary after more than a decade with Explicit Productions: “I learned a lot with Explicit. It’s still the best experience of my musical life, but I needed a second wind for what’s to come, a new direction and, above all, a new team to support my decisions,” says Souldia. “Patrick Marier [founder and Jack-of-all-trades at Explicit] did an amazing job, but we both felt like we could no longer offer anything new to each other.”
Now fully settled within the label that won the Record Label and Record Production Team of the Year during last fall’s Gala de l’ADISQ, Souldia is, more than ever, positioning himself as a “team guy.” The rapper, a born unifier, tapped peers from various backgrounds to feature on his eighth album, including rap Québ’s current leader, Loud, the mighty Limoilou twins Les Sozi, the poster boy of “rap gentil” (“sweet rap”) FouKi, Tizzo, Montréal’s leading figure of street rap, as well as two heavyweights of French rap, Seth Gueko and Sinik.
“I’ve been a unifier of people since I was a kid,” he says. “Even in the streets I had the reputation of building solid teams. But the point is not to exhaust myself doing thousands of features. I was going in that direction for a while a few years ago. I would collaborate with everyone instead of getting a bit of rest. It started weighing on my mental health.”
At 35, Kevin Saint-Laurent is trying to achieve in his life the same balance that he’s seeking in his music. “Every year we see artists just falling apart,” he says. “I’m increasingly aware of that and now I feel like I have the resources I need to forge ahead. I have a much more wholesome lifestyle.”
Lucky for him, that lifestyle works well during this forced hiatus. “It’s like a luxury jail,” he says laughing. “I feel like a drug kingpin behind bars.”