Plenty of rappers are accused of making the same song over and over again. People said it about Future a few weeks ago when his self-titled album dropped, or Big Sean after he continued to recount his come-up on his fourth album, or 21 Savage on Savage Mode, or Gucci Mane on his three post-prison albums. But FUTURE had the contrasting poles of the furious “POA” and the poignant “Feds Did a Sweep” (with the bright “Draco” and “Mask Off” somewhere in the middle), I Decided had trap-adjacent hits to offset the umpteenth batch of inspirational Sean songs, Savage Mode had “Feel It” and “Ocean Drive” offering levity from the murder music, and with Gucci’s singular style of wordplay, you’re never going to get the exact same song twice. NAV, however, appears to be the rare rapper to whom that accusation legitimately applies.
The rapper/producer is a native of Toronto’s Rexdale neighborhood, and maintained a relatively mysterious profile while cranking out Soundcloud songs with a million-plus plays. In the past year, Kylie Jenner Snapchatted herself lip-syncing along to his track “Myself,” The Weeknd signed him to XO, and he guested on Travis Scott’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, which built him substantial buzz. Most of his pre-album loosies are best characterized by their atmospheric synths, loosely-sung melodies, vapid lyrics, and mile-a-minute drug references– in other words, he made quintessential “Kylie Jenner Snapchat music.” He opens up his self-titled debut with “Myself,” which contains the lyric “I’ma break every box they try to put me in,” but ironically, NAV presents us just one box that its creator can’t seem to bust out of.
Nearly every line on NAV can be sorted into one of four categories: A) I enjoy drugs B) I used to be broke but now I can afford designer clothes; C) women are trifling but I guess I’ll let them fuck me; D) I have associates that own firearms. Not only that, but he often uses the same exact double entendres and metaphors when describing said categories. On “Lonely,” he raps, “I’m throwin’ Xannys in the air/If she catch one in her mouth she gon’ be sleepin’ on me.” On “Sleep,” it’s, “Your bitch popped a Xanny, now she sleepin’ on me.” On BITTSM‘s “Beibs in the Trap,” he said, “I’m with a white ho and she snorting three lines like Adidas.” On “Sleep,” it’s, “I seen a white girl sniff three lines just like Adidas.” When he’s not using his own songs for inspiration, he’s transparently repurposing The Weeknd’s low life steez into elements of his own persona. The “Hills” line “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” is restated twice on NAV, once via “When I’m sober I just don’t like who I am/Pour me up a 4 and I’ll feel like myself again” on “Myself,” and even more identically on “Lonely”: “When I’m on the drugs, baby that’s the real me.”
If NAV is playing a character, he’s doing a great job of staying on-brand, but if this is all that his personality consists of, he’s one of the least interesting famous rappers that I’ve heard in the last five years. His only points of cultural reference outside of prescription brands and high-end designers seem to be holdovers from his childhood: Buzz Lightyear, Optimus Prime, 2K Player Mode, and in possibly the album’s most awkward moment, Toys-R-Us. He seems like a kid who absorbed only the scumbaggy elements of modern rap music and then refracted them through a persona that doesn’t have much insight or emotion to add to them.
Over 11 tracks that are otherwise a monotonous crash course in immature nihilism, there are a few bright spots. “Mariah” is the one song with a discernible theme that’s distinct from the rest, and despite the fact that it’s got just as reductive a view of women as the rest of the album, NAV’s writing actually shines through when he focuses on specific scenes and characters. I’m also interested in learning more about his relationship with his mom, who pops up as the only person NAV truly seems to give a shit about: “I call my momma, said ‘We’ll never be broke again,'” “My momma call me up, but I can’t pick it up,” “My momma can tell you that I almost fucked up my life.” The dead-eyed zombie approach certainly works for some artists (Keef, Future, or The Weeknd, for instance), but they imbue it with haunted feelings, and it’s merely a small slice of their entire artistic personas.
NAV’s got definite skill as a producer– after all, his social handle is still BeatsByNav– but after hearing a full album of him rapping and singing, I’m unsure if he has enough of a unique personality to carry a career. He crafts some of the deepest, lushest synth sounds in the game right now, ones that split the difference between ’80s synthpop and the darker stuff from The Weeknd’s early days, and so I would not be at all surprised if he gets production credits on some major label releases this year. He’s en vouge as fuck right now, but he hasn’t convinced me that he’s, as he says on “Good for It,” “What the music game needed.”