12 Albums, 12 Stories: Elissa Revisits the Milestones of Her Journey as the Arab World’s ‘Queen of Emotions’

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At the turn of the millennium, the Arabic pop scene was flourishing and looking for its next big hit. In came Elissa with “Aayshalak” (Living for you), which became an instant hit in the Arab world and put the singer on the path to stardom. Elissa immediately left an imprint, and not only because she had found the perfect song for her vocals and personality. The ambitious singer had studied other hits with sharp precision and refined taste, and she made sure to have a say in the music production process until she got the perfect electronic beat for the song.

Elissa quickly sparked interest – and controversy. When her first music video was released, the young singer was immediately labeled as “bold.” But time would prove that she was never a talent who stumbled upon success by chance. From the outset, she had had her own vision, as evidenced by her introduction of house music to Arabic pop with master composer Jean-Marie Riachi.

Ahead of the release of her new album, the 13th of her musical career, we took a trip down memory lane with the singer to trace back all the milestones she has celebrated since her first album.

Some 32 years ago, Elissa clinched the silver medal at the Lebanese music competition Studio Al Fan. A record deal was supposed to follow, but her contract was shredded to pieces – she lacked talent, Studio Al Fan creator Simon Asmar told her. But Elissa did not give up on her dream. Even after that setback, she kept trying. If anything, she was even more determined.

In 1998, she released “Baddi Doub” (I Want to Melt), her first official song and title of her first album. With the track, Elissa began shaping her identity as an artist, paying no heed to what’s “popular” or “needed.” She confidently blended Arabic music and lyrics with Spanish melodies, and the black-and-white music video for the song was seen by the audience as bold. Right from the start, Elissa forged her own unique path.

Successful as it was in establishing her presence on the music scene, this first milestone left her with a drive to work even harder. In the summer of 2000, she released her second album W’Akherta Maak (What Should I Do with You), which would compete amongst the leading Arabic albums of the year against Abdel Majid Abdallah’s Enta Al Aziz (You’re the One), Hani Shaker’s Garhi Ana (My Wound), Muhammad Munir’s Fi Ishg El Banat (When it Comes to Loving Women) and Amr Diab’s Tamally Maak (Always with You).

The album featured “Betghib Betrouh” (Whether You’re Away or Gone), which propelled her from amateur status to professional. That Ragheb Alemeh would choose to make this duet with Elissa and feature it on his own 2001 album Saharouni El Leil following the collaboration’s resounding success spoke volumes about Elissa’s talent. Even for the singer herself, the success of “Betghib Betrouh” was a turning point in her quest for her identity as an artist. “I told myself at that moment: the talent I see in myself, Ragheb also sees it in me.”

With her first successful collaboration, Elissa saw herself climbing the ladder to stardom two steps at a time. The release of her third album, Ayshalak (Living for You), cemented her position as a pop star. “Ayshalak was not only a giant leap for me, but also for the whole music scene – pop music precisely.”

The song was not originally as fast-paced as the released version. The rhythm was accelerated upon Elissa’s request, who deeply admired another pop hit of the time. “‘Ayshalak’ came to life because I adored Amr Diab’s ‘Habibi Wala Aala Balu’ (My Lover Doesn’t Care) and wanted a similar song. Eventually, it turned out to sound nothing like it, but ‘Ayshalak’ was finally released.”

Besides perfect timing, a farsighted vision and a unique audacity, something else helped Elissa maintain her stardom after the first hit. Throughout the following years, the singer retained the same discipline and determination that helped her launch into the world of music. She was not the kind of pop star who chose from ready-made song projects. Instead, she participated in the song making and production processes and fostered partnerships with composers and songwriters who understood her points of strength. She insisted on getting involved in even the tiniest details – an insistence that can hardly be seen in a negative light if one were to look at the success she achieved, one album after another.

In 2004, she released her fourth album Ahla Donya (The Most Beautiful World), which, along with the titular song, laid the foundations for the path of romantic music that she subsequently followed, earning her the nickname “Queen of Emotions.” Recorded using the Super Audio sound technology – still a new innovation at the time – the album achieved worldwide success, earning Elissa a World Music Award for Best Selling Artist in the Middle East and North Africa. Elissa describes the title song, written and composed by Muhammad Al-Rifai and arranged by Jean-Marie Riachi, as an ode to all that love represents, a dreamy tale that expresses heartbreak as much as it does affection.

In early 2006, Elissa released Bastannak (Waiting for You), which went on to garner her another World Music Award. The global recognition for two years in a row was an unprecedented achievement in the Arabic music scene. The album sold over 3.7 million copies, and its songs were translated to many languages, including Hindi and Turkish.

One particular song from that album occupies a special place in Elissa’s heart. “When I hear ‘Fatit Sinin’ (Years Passed), I don’t feel like this is my voice in the song. I love this song. It doesn’t really remind me of anything. I’ve never experienced the state I’m singing about. But I love its music. I love its lyrics.”

The next year, Elissa unveiled her sixth album, Ayyami Bik (My Days with You). Like Bastannak, many of the album’s 11 tracks were translated to other languages. With “Betmoun” (Anything for You), Elissa stayed true to her identity as an artist, but still delivered a new musical genre that could be described as groundbreaking for its time. “Betmoun” was Elissa’s first of many successful collaborations with Marwan Khoury. The song was written and sung with a Lebanese accent, but it was adored by the Egyptian audience, Elissa recalls. It went to show the uniting power of music and how it can transcend borders and linguistic barriers.

Album number seven Tisaddaa Bi Meen (Would You Believe it) left Elissa with many unforgettable memories. Elissa remembers how “Aabali Habibi” (I Want to… My Love), which found its way to her by coincidence, struck her as a woman’s bold expression of love, declaring her wish to marry her lover and start a family with him. Elissa thought “Aabali Habibi” was realistic and tackled a subject that female artists rarely sing about. Plus, it would serve as a wonderful wedding song. As always, Elissa insisted on being involved in the production process to make sure the song came out as it did: “a romantic song by excellence.”

Most of the album’s songs were equally romantic, but each had its own story and emotions, and each reflected a different reality. Despite the misery embedded in the lyrics of “Amri La Rabbi,” faith took center stage in the song, reflecting the beliefs of Elissa the human being, who resorts to her faith to find strength in life.

As for “Min Gher Mounasba” (Without a Reason), written by Nader Abdallah and composed by Walid Saad, Elissa strayed from her usual romantic musical line to shine a spotlight instead on a social issue. For Elissa, singing about domestic violence was not an easy choice to make. “I was scared! It took me six or seven months to decide to sing it… But after that song, I broke the barriers stopping me from tackling taboos. No subject, sensitive as it was, was too scary to sing about. That’s when I discovered that art is, indeed, about sending a message.”

Some of Elissa’s songs conveyed social messages. Some stirred deep feelings in her listeners’ hearts. Others became the ultimate dance tune of their time. With this vast, diverse portfolio, Elissa’s music resonated with millions of listeners around the world. It was hardly a surprise, then, when her eighth album Asaad Wahda (The Happiest Woman) came in 13th position on Billboard’s World Albums chart for one week in July 2012. The album’s titular song, according to Elissa, is “full of positivity and joy. I sing it at every concert. It engages the audience in such a spectacular way. It’s a great song to perform at concerts.”

From a state of positivity, Elissa leapt in her ninth album to a state of love with Halet Hobb (which literally translates to “A State of Love”). In August 2014, the Halet Hobb appeared on the Billboard World Album chart, debuting at No. 3 and then hitting No. 7 and No. 12 in the following weeks.

Elissa had heard the melody of “Halet Hobb” (A State of Love) by coincidence while on a visit to Turkey. It was playing on the radio and she could not get it out of her head, eventually leading her buy the rights to reproduce the song in Arabic. She passionately recounts: “I don’t know how many Turkish songs I had to listen to until I finally found it.” As soon as she obtained the copyright for the melody, Elissa asked Nader Abdallah, her “emotional twin,” to write a song that fits the tune. She only needs to describe to Nader the emotion she would like her song to convey, and he’ll put it into lyrics.

The album also included “Beraghm Al Zorouf” (Despite the Circumstances), which she holds dear, being one of those songs that show a side of her personality, particularly in the verse “the weakness of the soul comes from the weakness of faith.” Elissa says she feels a deep connection to that verse, because it expresses strong faith despite challenges and setbacks.

Year after year and album after album, Elissa’s name became no stranger to Billboard charts. So when album number ten Sahharna Ya Leil (I’m Awake, O’Night) ranked No. 5 in October 2016 on Billboard’s World Albums chart it was far from a surprise. But the success of “Maktooba Leek” was. The song, released as part of the album, found its way to listeners’ hearts even without a music video or promotion. “This song conveys love in its most sublime form,” says Elissa.

Similarly, the song “Hekayat” (Stories), released in 2018 as part of her album Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni (To All Those Who Love Me), achieved great success, ranking No. 10 in August 2018 on Billboard’s World Albums chart, despite not being made into a music video. Elissa is fond of many of her songs, but she admits “Hekayat” is the only song she listens to on a daily basis, drifting off to sleep to its melody. “Hekayat” was written by Osama Mustafa and composed by Mohamed Yahya. For Elissa, the song abounds with emotions that summarize the power of love.

In 2020, in celebration of two decades of a successful music career, Elissa released Sahbit Raey (A Woman of Opinion), whose 18 songs varied between the Lebanese and Egyptian dialects, and even included a song in French. With this twelfth album, Elissa sought to reaffirm her identity as an artist who never compromised on her unique spontaneity and strength of character.

The album includes “Ahwet El Madi” (The Coffee of the Past) written by Siham Al-Shaashaa and composed by Muhammad Rahim, which brought Elissa back to the past and its memories. “All I could feel with this song was nostalgia and longing for my father.”

As she approaches the silver jubilee of a successful music career, marked by many ups and downs and a wide variety of experiments with Arabic pop, Elissa insists that it is only with perseverance that she can maintain her stardom.

“I know I am successful,” she says. “I certainly do not deny it. But I’m not yet satisfied with what I have accomplished – nor do I want to be.”

This article is a translation of a piece that originally appeared on Billboard Arabia.

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