TronelAfter a decade spent as a member of the satirical rap outfit Les Anticipateurs, Tronel has dropped a rather stunning debut album.

The album might have well been titled Tronel’s Angels or Troneldorado, but in the end, it’s TronelDiablo that came out on top after an inspired brainstorm. “Some people wanted to crucify and burn Les Anticipateurs at the stake. That’s what the title references, but also the fact that it’s a relatively dark album,” says the Montréal-based rapper, now also co-founder of the Ultra Nova Club label. “It just felt appropriate for this transition.”

The transition in question is the one he embarked on two years ago when the Anticipateurs project was kiboshed after a final split with Monak, the other main rapper in the group – which had risen to iconic fame for its effective, vulgar pastiche of American gangsta rap.

“I started working on tracks and I figured Monak would hop on them,” says Tronel. “And we’d also talked about going solo with our respective characters, but he was less and less involved. So, at a certain point, after working on tracks on my own, I realized I needed to take my art further – and that meant I could drop the character. Let’s be honest: that character was pretty burdensome. It was getting quite boring. I’d milked that joke for all it had.”

The Anticipateurs “joke” began in the early 2010s with a mixtape titled Deep dans l’game. It was the following year, thanks to their coked-up anthem “SAPOUD,” that the band from St-Joseph-de-Sorel (according to its own foundational story, at least) took off on the Québec rap scene – which, at the time, was experiencing a renaissance. Over the next decade, Anticipateurs dropped a dozen musical projects, flush with tracks that were essentially all about sex, drugs, or hockey – and often all three at once.

As the group evolved, it did become slightly more serious, but the basic intention always was a playful one. Tronel and Monak’s larger-than-life characters, whose lyrics mixed humor, Québec cultural references, and gratuitous profanity, became the group’s creative engines.

“There’s no doubt that [shocking people] draws attention, but I wouldn’t say that our success was entirely based on just that. We always came out with slick products and huge productions,” says Tronel, referring notably to the band’s collaborations with brand-name American producers such as Loud Lord, Lex Luger, and Scott Storch, the latter being responsible for such rap megahits as “Still D.R.E.” and “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.”

And let’s give credit where credit is due: the musical and sonic powerhouse of the Anticipateurs’ albums were largely the brainchild of Tronel, aka Nicolas Ranchoux, the man with French (from France) roots hidden behind his glasses, and bandana. With a Bachelor’s degree in Audio Arts and Engineering from the SAE Institute in Paris, the 1986-born rapper worked as a resident engineer in a renowned French studio (One Two Pass It), and as a sound engineer for international mega-tours, before returning to his hometown of Montréal for good.

“I spent 10 years in Paris and I would come back here for tours,” says Tronel. I reached a point where I could earn a living with the Anticipateurs alone, so I left my sound-guy career by the wayside. But I quickly realized that meant working twice as hard making rap, if I wanted to earn a decent living. Except I didn’t have enough work on my plate with Anticipateurs alone. There was something more powerful, creatively, inside of me that needed to come out. It feels good, honestly, and I believe the music is better than ever.”

Tronel can now count on Danny Ill, a talented Montréal producer who’s worked with Mike Shabb and Kgoon, among others. “We worked together on Dieux du Québec [the last Anticipateurs album, released in 2020] and we really developed a great relationship,” says Tronel. “I created about 100 songs and together we made one cut for the album.”

The final result is a selection of mainly trap songs, that still boasts diverse influences, such as baile funk (“Fais PT”), synth-pop (“Magnifique”), and reggaeton (“Chérie chérie”). “I think I’ve accomplished the right balance between what people loved [about Les Anticipateurs] and what they hated,” says Tronel. “Our die-hard fans will want to puke when they hear ‘Chérie chérie,’ but there’s also tracks that are as hard as ever [just for them].”

Aware of the large number of “unacceptable sentences” on the album, the rapper says he wanted to keep a balance between the old and the new Tronel. On “Haut d’gamme,” for example, we’re right in the middle of Anticipateurs territory. “J’suis pas un player, j’suis un pimp, j’ai trop d’femmes / Si t’es un hater, big t’as sniffé trop d’grammes,” (“I’m not a player, I’m a pimp, I got too many women/If you wanna hate on me, big, you’ve sniffed too many grams”), he says, as the opening salvo of this impressively trivial song.

“I just came out of a band that said the craziest shit,” he says. “It’s just a nod to that… some make real rap, I make surreal rap. There’s a second level to it, but I can’t help it if people don’t get it. I’m aware that artists have a certain degree of responsibility, but it also depends on who they’re pushing their music to. I’ve been making music for more than 18 years, and I’ve always promoted it as such.”

To be honest, the new, glasses-less Tronel reveals himself gradually, more towards the end of the album, and more specifically on “Spectaculaire,” an epic song where the rapper expresses his love for Prince, and “Mon Dieu,” where he sets the stage for “phase two” of his solo endeavour. “J’ai parié tous mes jetons sur mon ego comme un con / J’ai l’impression que j’pourrais exploser de rage sans faire un son / Certains pensent que j’ai un don, mais dans ma tête, ça tourne en rond,” (“I bet everything on my ego, like an idiot / I feel like I could explode and not even make a sound / Some think I have a gift, but my mind is just running in circles”), he confides, in a rare introspective mood. “I’ve lived, and I have tales to tell,” he says. “I’ve created songs that said stupid stuff for so long that it’s become super-easy for me to makes songs that don’t say stupid stuff. I have nothing but good stuff to say.

“Rest assured, I won’t stop making funnier songs,” says Tronel, as if he needs to reassure us. “I want to make lover-boy songs as much as I want to make bangers, and more personal things. It does feel good, though, to be able to be sincere about what you say.”

Long before the pandemic, indie-folk duo the Fortunate Ones – led by musical and romantic couple Andrew James O’Brien and Catherine Allan – encountered isolation and uncertainty.

After achieving success with their 2015 debut album The Bliss, released on Rose Cousins’ Old Farm Pony Records, this hard-working pair experienced burnout. Two songs from their 2015 album, title track “The Bliss” and “Lay Me Down,” reached No. 1 on the then CBC Radio 2 Top 20. They won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year in 2015, and were nominated for a JUNO Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in 2016. In 2018 they released Hold Fast, after which they toured extensively, and saw their song “Northern Star” reach No. 4 on the CBC Top 20. They were exhausted, but appreciative.

In 2019, their lives changed suddenly, when an injury revealed a tumour in O’Brien’s hand. Surgery, and the subsequent slow recovery, left him unable to play guitar – forcing the duo from St. John’s, NL, to slow down even more. When O’Brien started working at the Inn by Mallard Cottage, he enjoyed the distraction of changing beds and booking reservations. “I was just working on the reception desk, and I honestly was relieved and happy to be doing anything other than music at that point,” he says.

Allan, worried for O’Brien, and their lives on and off the road, took some time to reflect. She wrote “Clarity” as a means of figuring out what to do. “I started writing that song out of desperation, just seeking something but not knowing what it was,” she says. What the couple was seeking, and finally found, was acceptance of their place in the world.

Their surroundings helped. They spent a pandemic summer residing in a beautiful saltbox house by the sea in the community of English Harbour. Allen describes the isolation as “purposeful” rather than “just being marooned by yourself,” while O’Brien found the experience humbling, and a good reminder that “we are not the be-all and end-all of everything.”

This deep introspection led to the songs on their new album, That Was You and Me, that express love and loss, and lyrics that are rich with metaphors inspired by the natural beauty of Newfoundland. For instance, in “Anchor,” love is compared to an ever-changing river, and time to an endless sea. The song also conveys the uncertainty of relationships and the importance of supporting one another, hence one lover is the anchor to the other’s line. Another standout, “Heavy Heart,” confesses to fear that the heaviness your partner is feeling might pull them away from you. As is evident everywhere on the album, love, trust, and letting go are the only ways through the inevitable hard times.

The pandemic complicated their recording timeline with Toronto-based producer Joshua Van Tassel (Amelia Curran, Sarah Slean), who devised a backup plan to produce the album with the Fortunate Ones recording – not just demos, but actual finished songs – from their home in the Maritimes. Luckily, they were able to record the album in person, making for some magical moments. Their single-take recording of “It’s Worth It (For Leo)” brought tears to Van Tassel’s eyes, since he’s currently a father of young children. And it’s no wonder why: O’Brien wrote the song to let his own ailing dad know he did a good job raising him.

That Was You and Me is stacked with deeply personal yet universal songs about family, love, and finding one’s place. Their harmonies warmly wrap around each other in a way usually achieved only by siblings, or by those with an undeniable connection (like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings). Paradoxically, the bittersweet lyrics both pierce and soothe, forcing the listener to feel their feelings, yet letting them know everything’s going to be okay. The result is music that’s both grounding and uplifting.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chorus of “Day to Day”:

I’m learning to find my way
Own the mistakes I’ve made
Hoping to finally say
I’ve found some meaning in the day to day

The Fortunate Ones faced isolation and uncertainty by connecting to themselves, to each other, and to their love for music. As a result, That Was You and Me is a balm for anyone navigating difficulty – which is all of us, especially in this (post-)pandemic world.

Halfway through our conversation, Emmanuel Jal says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go so deep.”

He’s been passionately talking about the power of positive thinking, transcending bitterness, and the importance of imagining a better future. But when you consider the source, an apology isn’t necessary.

When he was seven years old, Jal and hundreds of other children fled to Ethiopia to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War. They were recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, trained to use AK-47 machine guns, and forced to fight the Sudanese government in a war they didn’t understand.

Amnesty International says that during that war, which raged for 22 years, “all parties to the conflict perpetrated serious international human rights violations, including targeted killing of civilians, the recruitment and use of children, acts of sexual violence, and destruction of property.”

After spending three years fighting and witnessing unspeakable horrors, Jal escaped with a few hundred other kids. Their journey to freedom took about three months, and many died along the way. Jal ended up in a small town in South Sudan where a British aid worker, Emma McCune, took a liking to him. She smuggled him into Kenya on an aid flight and paid for his education.

While in Kenya, Jal heard Puff Daddy’s tribute to Jesus, “Best Friend.” It changed his life. “Music was a place where I could become a child again,” he says. “It was like I’d found heaven.” Since then, the self-described “accidental musician” has been trying to provide a piece of heaven to anyone who needs it, through his mix of hip-hop and various African sounds on his six albums.

As a musician and an activist for peace,  Jal has helped both himself and the world. His live appearances have included Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert, and the One Concert for his Holiness The Dalai Lama. Jal has addressed the United Nations, and the U.S. Congress, and has collaborated and performed alongside artists such as Lauryn Hill, Peter Gabriel, Nelly Furtado, Ed Sheeran, Nile Rodgers, and Alicia Keys. In 2008, a full-length documentary on his life, Warchild, won 12 film festival awards worldwide. In the same year, his autobiography, also called Warchild, was published by Little Brown. For his outstanding commitment to peace building, Jal has been awarded the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent 2018, and the Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Award 2017, among several other such honours.

He says his latest LP, Shangah, is more celebratory than his past work. “I just want to dance, I love to dance!” he says. “I believe certain kinds of traumas can get out of your body through dancing. You breathe differently after, you process things differently.”

Jal doesn’t just dance up a storm in his videos. Like his Afrobeat contemporaries, his films burst with gorgeous fashions and colours. The video for “Hey Mama,” shot in his home country and in Kenya, is no exception. “I just want to push the young designers and dancers and musicians in Africa,” he says, adding that “I was surprised to discover that people in Asian countries are watching my videos.”

“Hey Mama” features the lines, “South Sudan is my mother, tribalism has no place, languages don’t discriminate, we are all equal, no war, love is our cure.”

“Was it painful returning to South Sudan to shoot the video?,” we ask. “It’s sad to see 98 percent of the people scrambling to live,” says Jal. “Half the population are refugees! I really hope the peace talks produce some tangible results.”

Offstage, Jal heads his own charity, Gua Africa, which focuses on education and supporting families affected by conflicts in East Africa. He’s also worked with organizations like Amnesty International to help prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.

Several times during our chat, Jal emphasizes that we have the power to create the future we want by imagining it. “I’m creating the life I want by drawing wisdom and motivation from my past,” he says. “I’ve shut down many horrible things, like being tempted to eat a comrade when were in the bush and starving, or drinking my own urine, because I’ve healed.

“But sometimes when I look at my life, I ask, ‘Why am I here?’ It feels like a dream.”