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Belgian star Stromae arrives for sold-out Boston debut

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Stromae, the Belgian singer who’s been packing arenas across Europe, is striking — slender, ethnically ambiguous, androgynous in the pastel outfits he fancies — with a driving curiosity about people’s lives that he explores in lyrics and high-concept videos.

He sings in French with the formal diction of an earlier era, echoing elders like Jacques Brel, a fellow Belgian who died before Stromae, 29, was born. But he makes club music: a bright electro-house that he concocted at home till 2010, when his “Alors on danse” caught fire, with its message of dance as salve for recession, debt, and ennui.

And since his second album, “Racine carrée,” came out in 2013, Stromae has become a perennial headliner, rocking multi-ethnic, multi-generational crowds while critics ponder how he captures the moment.

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“Stromae is an antenna,” wrote Véronique Mortaigne in Le Monde. “From his Brussels control tower he tunes into economic crisis, AIDS, environment, misogyny, Twitter, false wealth. He speaks to the mixed-race, to city dwellers, to the fatherless, to binge drinkers.” “Racine carrée” is full of bittersweet songs on hard topics — missing dads, cancer, being a loser — with anthemic refrains and contagious beats.

This fall Stromae, whose real name is Paul Van Haver, is touring the US for the first time. Though he sings in French, ticket sales suggest there’s little lost in translation: The tour is mostly sold out, including his Boston stop on Sunday at the Paradise.

On the phone from Brussels, Stromae says, in French, that he looks forward to smaller US venues as a break from the mega-stages he frequents most of the time.

“Small rooms are cool,” he says. “It brings you back to reality every time you change setting. It puts you a bit in danger, and that’s a good thing.”

Risk appeals to Stromae, as two videos from “Racine carrée” attest. On “Formidable,” he plays a staggering drunk who calls out to passersby — flaccidly cat-calling women, mumbling at men, ranting at children about his failings. For the video, he staged himself in the rain at a Brussels bus stop, with a hidden camera recording.

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Some people laugh at him, some avoid him, and others recognize him and take his picture but don’t come near. Vehicles pass; the drizzle keeps falling.

“It was difficult to play,” he says. “At the end of the day I felt really uneasy. It made me realize what actors have to do, just by poking one toe in their craft. When you perform for other people you soak up their energy in a really sincere way.”

On another song, “Tous les mêmes,” he explores the tedium and grievances that pile up in a bad relationship. In the video he plays both a man and a woman, morphing between genders as he moves through the conjugal apartment, at one point semi-nude in bed between the male and female lovers of each side of his personality.

“I can’t make choices,” Stromae says. “That’s my main fault. I wonder if have any convictions, or if they’re only about trivial things. When I get into a topic — let’s say, love — I always switch over and look at it from the other perspective. And that’s my way of functioning in general, and I think it makes me play the role of others than myself.”

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Stromae’s own story gives him abundant dualities to navigate. He barely knew his Rwandan father, who died in the 1994 genocide. Raised by his Belgian mother, Stromae grew up working-class in multiethnic Brussels, went to Jesuit schools, and did well in science, before trying his luck in hip-hop.

His stage name is a rearrangement of “maestro” in French backward slang, a bit of braggadocio he kept from his MC days. Hip-hop, he says, helped him grow as a writer.

“I knew rappers who were very technical, fitting in as many rhymes as possible to the extent of losing the meaning. Finally I learned how to bring meaning into my lyrics and not just show off.”

The insight made him a songwriter, stoking the sincere lyrics that first seem an odd blend with the rippling electronica, but that he pulls off well. He’s often asked about the Brel influence, to which he admits readily. An even greater icon is the late Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, to whom he dedicates a song, “Ave Cesaria.”

The album’s biggest hit, however, was “Papaoutai,” a fast, even bouncy song about missing dads. Stromae admits that his own life story partly inspired it, but says he scrapped the first version, because it was too personal and just didn’t sound right.

“It’s really for every father and every child,” he says of his rewrite. “We all try the best we can, and we don’t have any lessons to give anybody. I prefer to raise questions than to make demands.”

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Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@
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