Set is N’Dour’s first great solo album for one simple reason: He figured how to integrate synthesizers into mbalax. Typically they hover melodically in the higher registers here, fluctuating tonally between flute and calliope. On “Sabar” he sings in unison with them, on “Medina,” a keyboard bed allows playful saxophone to spring into an upward tumble, and on the title anthem, choppy synths mow though the beat from underneath.
Not that the synths carry Set on their own. Ornate horns, frenetic tabas and booming trap drums muscle their way into the mix, while “Xale” makes room for an elegant string quartet. Compact song structures — “Fenene” is the only cut to break the five-minute mark — add to the tumultuous density of the arrangements. But if Étoile de Dakar was an ensemble of competing equals, Super Étoile is a backup band whose disciplined members contribute inspired moments to an overall pattern. The few English lyrics here, such as the exhortation to “try to be strong” on “Miyoko,” might arouse concerns about what uplifting vagueness N’Dour preaches about elsewhere in Wolof; righteous songs like “Toxiques,” which calls upon poor nations to refuse the toxic waste the first world foists upon them, put those fears to rest.