Nappy Nina has a way with words. The way they stretch and roll off the tongue. The way they can jumble together in a rush of emotion, or the way they can emerged clipped, like shots fired from a gun. Any artists who works with words understands their import and the importance of word selection. It’s okay to pick a word because it sounds good, not necessarily because it follows the logic of what came before it.
We judge rap artists by their lyricism. It’s not the only thing by which we judge them. Delivery is important, too. Flow matters. Flow can be an important signifier and sometimes the pleasure of an artist’s flow can even compensate for deficiencies in lyrical content. Some artists are enjoyable, bringing joy merely by the way they bend and twirl the words they spit. We don’t rely on these kinds of artists for their lyricism; we appreciate them because of the way they sound riding a beat.
Nappy Nina is a poet, and like the best poets she has the poet’s sensibility about words and the way they sound when strung together, like the lights wrapped around the trunk of a tree. While hip hop lyrics can be poetry, they don’t have to be and all hip-hop artists are not poets. Rakim is a poet. Kendrick Lamar is a poet. Eminem is not a poet. Travis Scott is not a poet. Mac Miller was a kind of poet, an expert in lyrically recounting the turmoil of his own emotions and his own demons. Nappy Nina’s poetry is more oblique but that doesn’t mean it’s less vital. Her lyrics are enhanced by their obliqueness because we don’t know if she’s playing a role or talking about herself, or speaking directly to the listener. Mac was the bard of himself, and of his own insecurities. Nina has bigger fish to fry.
Smokey Robinson is a poet. Is there any song-writer in the American canon better than Robinson at conveying complex emotions in short bursts of lyrical candy? Probably not. Of course, all of this is subjective and within the ears of the listener. Some artists may even resent or disagree with such labels, just as they may bristle when asked about the meaning of their words, or when we ask them to interpret the meaning of the art that they create.
Nappy Nina, the Brooklyn emcee, by way of Oakland, drops her new EP, 30 Bag, on May 8. The seven-song album was produced entirely by Unjust, one half of the group Rap Noir, along with Tajai of the Souls of Mischief. Unjust is also part of Chosen Few, a conscious hip-hop trio, and a West Coast native himself. 30 Bag fits comfortably within the new sounds coming mostly out of New York City, that often marry abstract, introspective lyrics with dusty, lo-fi beats and samples from obscure pop records, or skittish electronics, like a pin-ball machine gone haywire. But Nina goes her own way, too, and her album carries an overall lighter vibe, missing from artists like MIKE, Medhane or Caleb Giles, but her work is not light-weight. Like those artists, too, the songs are short. The longest on 30 Bag clocks in slightly over three minutes. The album sounds familiar, without feeling stale, and there is an airiness to the music; it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. You’re enthralled by her abstract wordplay without feeling trapped. You can empathize and identify with her struggles and challenges without necessarily knowing what precisely those struggles and challenges are. And, you can nod your head to the music, too.
Nina has released four concise albums since 2015, including last year’s The Tree Act and Dumb Doubt, both inspired collections that evidenced a major talent on the rise. 30 Bag feels more introspective and less overtly political than her previous work but it also feels more cohesive, perhaps because the sound of the new album seems more consistent from song to song.
Nappy Nina possesses an elastic voice. She can bend and twist the words she uses, stretch out the letter “O” for example, until her voice becomes another instrument, which can change tone or color, depending on the subject matter or the beat. Her voice can be soothing, without sounding sleepy and she can fire off a round of words without getting tripped up; the authority of her words and her voice demand that you listen. At other times, her voice is syrupy, her words sticking to the beat.
Like any contemporary poet, Nappy Nina’s work follows a continuum, with influences from the Beat Poets through to the Native Tongues movement, until today. You can hear the influence of Bob Kaufman, Hettie Jones, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), William Clifford Brown, and even Gil-Scott Heron, but you can also hear the influence of Q-Tip, Digable Planets and One Self, and the words and beats on this album form an organic whole. The sequence of songs fits together because they are all part of the same story, musically and lyrically.
The first single from the album, “Freak It,” features a looped flute sound that soars and flutters as Nina raps over the beat. Is it a song about sex? An illusion to Nina’s rapping abilities? About her ability to make a career in music for herself? Hard to say. The lyrics are abstract: all I’ve got is my word/hold it over me. Is she talking to a lover? A friend? Later: sittin’ here figuring out how I’m gonna freak it/remorse be the trigger that keeps me from eatin’.
Track 2, “Dipped,” is brighter, with tinkling pianos, disembodied voices and skittering sounds like brushes caressing cymbals. On “When Her,” with whispered words and airy “ahs” from a male-sounding choir, Nina introduces the song with the chorus: they crowned me a winner last winter/the seasons are warm now and I am no sprinter/ironed out wrinkles that make me no quicker. Then Stas Thee Boss jumps in and delivers the first verse. The beat thumps and bounces, a natural head nod, the lyrics cryptic. Is it about lost love? The pressure to produce after a slew of critically acclaimed releases? The matter at hand is mysterious but the song has a jauntiness to it, a contrast to the implications of the words, and the possible expressions of self-doubt.
“Sick A Lot” contains the refrain: I get sick a lot/normalize a stomach ache/I kid you not, and it’s hard to separate the woman from the message, the identity of the artist from the pressure on all artists, but particularly on female artists who don’t identify as straight and white. Nina is not clearly topical on this record but these words still seem to have a political weight. The cadence of the words can be whimsical but there’s no whimsy in them. Toni Morrison once said that all good art is political. Surviving, persevering and existing in the face denial, devaluation and dehumanization are all political acts that need no soap box to recognize them for what they are.
“High For Nothing” embraces a fun-house mirror of a beat, with electronic keyboard flourishes and rippling electronic noises that sound like Pac Man run amuck: father’s only daughter/but they tell me listen hear, son/things ain’t how they appear. The beat worms its way into your brain while Nina sets us straight and laments “getting high for nothing.” “Modestly” features another BK artist, Maassai, and a looped keyboard that sounds like a trumpet. In verse three, Nina raps: do you copy me/speaking and speaking sloppily/maybe I don’t want to be heard/rap anomaly. The song pulses along on a jazzy beat, Maassai’s hard flow in contrast to Nina’s, which splashes across her verses at a clipped pace, before she brings us back to the chorus. On the last cut, “Fight Fair,” synthetic strings swell, while lighter, whispery voices filter in and out. Nina lets us know she’s a scrapper when she raps: I ain’t the type that fights scared, while a martial beat pushes the song along.
On her new collection of music, Nappy Nina once again serves notice that she is an artist to be reckoned with. The French painter Edward Degas, regarded as one of the fathers of Impressionism, said this about art: Art is not what you see, but what you make others see. Through her chosen medium, Nappy Nina makes us see a strong, resilient artist who invites us into her world, to share her struggles and her triumphs, her self-doubt and her confidence, and her life force. We’re all the better for it, even if we can only stay for a little while.
Listen to Nappy Nina’s music on Bandcamp and buy some of that shit, too. You’ll be glad you did: https://nappynina.bandcamp.com