Leave it to me to get on Ghostface Killah’s case for pewtering out a wimpy little 40-minute hip-hop album last year only to completely let it slide in the case of his New York cohort Navy Blue.
But Ada Irin, which is rife with samples, deep with a guest appearance from Ka and worthy of the inimitable, beautifully organic production of Preservation, Rago Foot and Alex Epton, is instrumental in helping to usher in the new era in hip-hop. It’s grounded, practical, honest and real, reflective of the ebb in available slang to artists but also inherently street, and incisive enough to paint an honest picture and keep the listener’s attention. Also, where Eminem veers toward technical acrobatics, high school dissing and theatrical cinematics, Navy Blue sounds almost apathetic as to whether you like the story he’s telling: he’s just going to tell it anyway like it is anyway, with no frills attached.
Almost more than anything, though, and encapsulated by Ka’s important guest verse on “In Good Hands,” it’s indescribably great to get a classic album by a New York emcee again at all after the deluge of Cali stuff (Kendrick Lamar, Damu the Fudgemunk, Anderson .Paak, to leave out a litany of others), possibly the first one since MIKE’s Black Soap, and one of the first FEW since Ka’s own moribund, horrifying epic Night’s Gambit. And yes, that album did come out in 2013, troublingly enough. Even if there’s no other reason, New York is the undisputed birthplace of hip-hop, so the techniques that its artists lean on are automatically more likely to become ubiquitous.
In the case of Ada Irin, it’s going to be a punctilious, patient, but artful, and ultimately supremely rewarding, approach to plotting down a rap LP. The pointedly soulful approach to productional sampling is glaringly obvious right away on the celestial but mournful “With Sage,” on which spliced vocal channels line a defiantly American song craft with staunch humanity while also providing a gorgeously mellow backdrop for Navy Blue’s hearty outpour. Blue makes things unmistakably honest and real right away, like an East Coast version of Drake telling a matter-of-fact story: “Rest in peace to Maxi / Forever in my heart / In a sea of my own tears / Aboard Noah’s ark”. At the same time, though, he duly letting things fall into light-hearted bullsh** soon enough, so as not to be too ham-handed with the brooding: “Tryin’ to find peace / Spliff get me there faster (sic)”.
Elsewhere, Ada Irin is full of eerily, almost defiantly deliberate tempos and caustically honest and poignant lyrics, erected on a tight rope walk of limited-means ghetto life which of course Ka himself encapsulates so perfectly with the lines: “They said the common thread with our enemies / Was we were both men in need with no amenities”. Still, Blue’s flow has a way of fermenting up into something energetic, but it does it on its own time, like a living organism going through contemplations and realizations, but equally in due time. What makes this album a classic is that when these realizations manifest, they’re so direct, and so unadorned by extraneous tactics of hip-hop crowd-pleasing or contrivance, that they can’t help but sink in.
“Simultaneously Bleeding,” much akin to many of these stark dirges, is a strange sort of hip-hop song that’s almost completely devoid of percussion. On this cut in particular, the production, which materializes primarily within the immense channeling and treatment of basic studio instruments, even going through what I THINK is an ominous note-bending of a piano, takes the helm, with Navy Blue posturing up like an everyday ghetto emcee handling racism and general life obstacles. Again, the lack of pretension or premeditated ploy on his part is what will hit you. “Hari Kari” is a tense, indescribable miasma of frenetic bongos and suicidal diatribe that wields spareness and space as its pocket aces, where so many rappers and producers would cottoned up a whole bevy of unneeded faux-emotion.
I can’t see any other albums for Navy Blue on Spotify and Bandcamp so this must be his debut album, with just one single issued last year, “Higher Self.” The flow is about a B+ at least, as are the lyrics, with Blue wielding about the rapping skill of Black Milk, someone who’s sometimes harangued by critics as of menial chops in that department. Anyway, superseding this discourse is the fact that if I know Navy Blue, he’d take settling down in a comfortable life and being true to his friends and family over stardom and grandeur, any day.