Nav Is Looking Into The Abyss
The artist’s second album is emphatically paranoid and pessimistic— illustrating the unflattering yet raw image of the Brown spectator and perpetual outsider. His most exceptional effort, casting a three-dimensional image of what vulnerability looks like.
On March 22, 2018, NAV released his sophomore effort, Bad Habits. The record signaled the Toronto rapper’s return to music after his supposed retirement. Executive produced by manager Amir “Cash” Esmailian and mentor The Weeknd, the album boasts sixteen tracks with features from Gunna, Lil Durk, and Meek Mill— among others.
NAV’s career has proved itself to be a polarizing one, subject to chronic criticisms to the artist’s alleged generic sound and lyrical content, or as Anthony Fantano of theneedledrop has said, “[he] sounds like the way a robot would rap.” However, such critiques are difficult to come to terms with when NAV’s identity is factored into the equation. As the artist acknowledges in his music, he is a “brown boy,” a reference to his South Asian heritage. Jazz musician, Vijay Iyer has made note of such assessments towards South Asian musicians and their lack of good faith, contending, “Over the years a racialized component emerges in such language—basically a kind of model minority discourse that presumes that Asians have no soul and have no business trying to be artists, especially in proximity to Blackness, which is, in the white imagination, a realm of pure intuition, apparently devoid of intellect.” I don’t see NAV’s sound as his achilles heel, rather, I think of what Simone White proclaims in her novel, Dear Angel of Death; “A rapper is part machine, part apparatus; he is not exactly nothing but a man.” To reduce NAV’s artistry to roboticism fails to delineate his performance— a deeply internalized stoicism.
NAV is self-aware of his position as an outsider and affirms these sentiments on the gorgeous backend of “Tension,” echoing, “They wasn't used to somebody that looks like me/They ain't care what I looked like/they just care about the music.” NAV’s continual insecurity of the station he inhabits (or lack thereof) is ever present on the project thematically and invests itself into places of paranoia and pessimism. On The Weeknd backed cut “Price On My Head,” he makes this grave assertion divulging, “Put a brown kid in the Southside Rex and me is what you get/Had to take a lot of losses, made me comfortable with death.”
It would be disingenuous separating NAV’s Brown identity and this inherent pessimism. I grew up with guys like NAV. Lower middle class and working class South Asian boys whose identities were compounded by self-hate and an eerie spectatorship of their environment. NAV recollects this several times, on the lyrically dense “I’m Ready” confessing, “Bro just got a sentence, I cried after the visit,” and on the Meek Mill collaboration “Tap” exclaiming, “They got my brother locked inside a cage/Take them shackles off his feet, he ain’t a slave.” With dispositions like these, I often recall this quote from Jesse McCarthy’s Notes On Trap:
“Trap is invested in a mode of dirty realism and it is certainly the only American literature of any kind that can truly claim to have a popular following across all races and classes.”
As a consequence, NAV takes to vapid materialism to cope— often with the sinister realization of its inability to cure his ailments. As he avows on the airy and syncopated “Taking Chances,” he discloses, “Pockets filled up with faces, I see dead people everywhere I go.” A sentiment very similar to fellow Auto-Tune crooner Future who asked, “What I’m supposed to do when these racks blue?” Even on the synth-led and aggressive “Dior Runners” where NAV is arguably at his most confident, he pleads, “I deposit big amounts, I wear brands I can't pronounce/Paranoid, I back out, better back out my way.”
Much like the album’s cover art, NAV is in a place of darkness with a spotlight on him looking into the abyss. NAV discovers an eloquence which he lacked on his previous efforts, constructing a solid narrative throughout this record and a sense of identity. We not only understand NAV’s place in music, but in the world, as he looks back on himself. Bad Habits is the brutally honest, ravishing, and meticulously assembled portrait of the Brown Boy’s mind’s eye. As NAV lets us into his life on this record, it’s difficult not to echo the words of Simone White:
“In rap music there is no inner space, no privacy, no singularity; there is, far in the future, the destruction of these conditions; there is the future.”