NAV 'Demons Protected By Angels' Bids For Emotion But Still Sounds Hollow

NAV 'Demons Protected By Angels' Bids For Emotion But Still Sounds Hollow

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Though rap has gone multinational like never before, the most paradigm-shifting artists still possess a specific sense of place and personal identity. Drake absorbs and focus-groups sounds from Afrobeat to UK drill, but he never lets us forget he’s from Toronto, and his last album Honestly, Nevermind even featured the Canadian MC spitting in a Quebecouis patois. Travis Scott makes psychedelic vibers for international music festivals, but his sound is just screwed enough to remind the listeners he’s a Houston native.

NAV has patterned his career off those two artists in particular more than anyone else (yes, even the Weeknd); Drake’s Meek Mill diss “Back to Back” was his first major production credit, and Travis Scott’s “Biebs in the Trap” is where most of us heard his voice for the first time — but he embraces only the flattened and homogenized, shedding any details or inflections that might let listeners know who he actually is. Though the title of his latest album Demons Protected By Angels might imply an effort that’s more raw and diaristic, there’s no sense of self, rarely anything to suggest who he is or where he came from beyond the occasional reminder that he’s the “first brown boy to get it popping.”

Capital Records recently found itself in hot water over its signing of FN Meka, the so-called “first AR rapper” who was really no more than a racist caricature gone virtual. But it’s not far-fetched to suggest NAV wasn’t the first augmented reality rapper — his rhymes are delivered so precisely and with so little passion that it’s as if they’re algorithm generated. His intonation and cadence hardly vary between up-tempo bangers and introspective tracks.

On album closer “Ball in Peace (Outro),” NAV reminisces on the tragic loss of his friend and producer jayxxclusive3, but there’s hardly any difference between the voice he uses to express his feelings and the one he uses to extol his sexual exploits, like when he boasts about keeping his “dick covered in lipstick” on “Weirdo.”

NAV’s words are always clear and impossible to miss, which makes it hard to ignore how uninspired the bars are — from opening track “Count on Me” onward, the predominant theme is the hate and jealousy he feels from those in his orbit. The fear of backstabbing is omnipresent, and the need to interface with other humans exhausts him; “Wrong Decisions” makes a hook out of his inability to trust his brothers or his “bitch.” His music radiates the same kind of paranoia and pettiness Drake perfected, but without the anger or forcefulness, and little of the romance either — though NAV talks Xanax, lean and even Vicodin, his music most often recalls the blunted sensation and dulled sex drive associated with SSRIs.

NAV is one of contemporary rap’s greatest depressives, less because his music actually sounds sad and more because it’s completely disconnected from every emotion and experience outlined. There’s a sense of dejection to NAV’s bars, a monotone consistency and a flatlined sing-song delivery. On lead single “Never Sleep,” where Lil Baby and Travis Scott’s voices carry weight, NAV is the void of a hologram. Next to the wily and unpredictable Lil Uzi Vert (“Dead Shot” or the pained soulfulness of Lil Durk (“My Dawg”), NAV sounds like a new money start-up CEO who paid to record songs with his favorite rappers. That’s not to say NAV’s rhymes are sloppy — if anything, they’re too studied and too precise, with none of the unpredictability of the artists he surrounds himself with, a kid brother who has carbon-copied the personal style of his elder siblings.

On “Demons in my Cup,” when he says “Ima big dog / You a pup,” it feels like he’s trying to convince himself of his toughness as much as the listener. NAV might just be a natural loner — he’s at his best on solitary tracks like “Loaded,” which foreground his inability to process emotion without the aid of a substance. There’s a lingering feeling that, if he strayed too far from his routine or varied too much from the formula, his whole façade might collapse in on itself.

NAV is a noted gamer, who once challenged any other rapper to a round of Fortnite with $10K on the line — much like a customizable Fortnite skin, NAV is an avatar, executing different presets with the effortlessness of a programmed line of code. It’s hard to separate his background as a producer from his flow, as both NAV’s drums and delivery are formulaic enough to fit the pop charts, but it’s straying from the rubric that makes a voice distinct.

There’s a smoothness both to NAV’s flow and his overall sound that makes ideal background music, an ambient soundtrack for zoned-out teenagers playing Rocket League. The only emotion that stands out is the resentfulness, the jealousy and suspicion he feels toward almost every individual in his life; the focus is always squarely on himself, a self-deified auteur with nothing at the center, just a simulation behind a pair of aviator shades.

In today’s rap game, the bitter jealousy of men is often taken for honesty, their casual misogyny framed as diaristic confessions or expressions of mental health, and NAV tries to pass off immature pettiness and spurned heartbreak as personal introspection. After all, this is a man who wrote an entire song about his exclusion from XXL’s Freshman List despite claiming he doesn’t need their approval, and has complained on record about how much it hurts to be ignored by TMZ.

The demons mentioned in the title of his latest album are often projected outward, as NAV displaces the pain inside onto the solipsistic simulation he’s constructed. But when you’re constantly blaming everyone in your circle, maybe the issue doesn’t lie with the people you surround yourself with, but the person at the core of it all. Demons Protected By Angels alludes to an artist self-aware enough to acknowledge his flaws, but the passivity of his music suggests he’d rather stew in the toxicity than work through it.

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