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Christine and the Queens’ Unexpected, Deliberate Chris Stands Apa…

Chaleur Humaine, the debut album by Héloïse Letissier’s Christine and the Queens, was an improbable breakout. Mainstream straddles the experimental on the regular in France’s thriving pop scene, but seldom gets outside traction—let alone enough to become the U.K.’s biggest-selling debut album of 2016. But on music alone, it’s easy to hear the crossover appeal. Letissier’s soft-rock ’80s sound has been revived continually, to zeitgeist sighs, by the likes of Haim on Days Are Gone or Dev Hynes’s Blood Orange. The haze of keyboard presets, the windshield-fog backing vocals, the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis rhythmic stabs—all are a specific slice of nostalgia. Single “Girlfriend” recruits Dâm-Funk for hyper-targeted triangulating: “Rock With You” (the synths), “Holiday” (the bass), a big nod to Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn” (the chorus) and, anchoring it to this decade, Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” (the melody and cadence on the verses are near-identical).

But Chris has something the 80,000 ’80s imitators don’t: a killer persona, in the titular Chris. Like “Christine” on Chaleur Humaine, she’s both character and talisman, a songwriting conceit and someone to inhabit to get through the day. She commands space, an album’s worth; unlike on Chaleur Humaine, the only featured artist on Chris is Dâm-Funk. She’s master of ceremonies on lead track, “Comme si,” Letissier’s version of Prince’s intro to “Let’s Go Crazy”: “Let’s, for the whole song, just pretend that all along I’ve been there, infectious.” Infectious she is, and robust; the fluting soprano from Chaleur Humaine is heard on occasion, as on “What’s-her-face” and “Goya Soda,” but more often there’s a rich, loud belt, the kind from her early, Paris is Burning-inspired “power song” “The Loving Cup.” As “Comme si” continues: “There’s a pride in my singing, the thickness of a new skin.”