To describe the rise of Toronto artist NAV as “meteoric” is both disingenuous and true at the same time. While he’s been getting some shine courtesy of the Weeknd (his XO label boss), Travi$ Scott, and Metro Boomin, to those not closely following the post-Drake-and-40 worlds of alt-R&B and rap, NAV may seem to be all effect and no cause. His career, a product of the SoundCloud-to-studio rapper pipeline first traveled by Desiigner and Post Malone, begins with “Myself,” a drug ballad that blew up after a boost from Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat. A sedate, trap-influenced track that sits somewhere between rap and alternative R&B, the song wasn’t NAV’s first release, but it’s the one that sent him up. From there, features with Travi$ Scott and Belly and and a track and forthcoming tape with Metro Boomin ensured his place on listener’s watchlists. This rapid ascendance culminated with his signing to XO, The Weeknd’s Republic imprint, on February 16th. It’s fitting, given that Republic also signed Post Malone after the rabid virality of “White Iverson.”
But unlike Post, NAV wasted no time getting out product after his deal. NAV comes in barely as the ink dries, amidst long studio hours with Metro Boomin for their tape. Clocking in at 11 tracks and 34 minutes, the release comes billed as a “mixtape” yet sits on the iTunes store, charting #13 as of press time. This low-risk, retail mixtape approach is a smart move for an artist with such a sparse catalog as NAV. While his few tracks and features have been high-profile, they haven’t given listeners a sense of who NAV is. He’s a Weeknd underling now, and while Abel’s influence is discernable, there are far more echoes of Future within NAV’s work. His lyrics are even less meaningful (if that’s even possible), and his vocals are generously brushed with autotune. His voice is warm, but metallic, and he sings verses to rap-like meters. But the most important (and redeeming) aspect of his work is production. He pairs spacious Toronto synth melodies to ATL 808’s, mixing the sound of both the 6’s to create versatile instrumentals, mellow enough for relaxation yet punchy enough for afterparties. While it’s not a new idea, it makes for pleasant listening.
While we do have a decent understanding of NAV’s sound, one thing remains unknown. Who is he? Even with high-profile features and a record deal, the man remains as much a mystery as the Weeknd once was. This is due in part to his rapid rise- “I went straight to the Hills from the trap,” he sings on penultimate track “Some Way.” This seems the most succinct description of NAV’s career so far, aside from Pitchfork editor Matthew Schnipper’s quip that he “sounds like he learned about rap (and life?) exclusively on the Four Pins Twitter.” Aside from heavy drug use, we know nothing. Who is NAV? And will his self-titled debut answer the question?
The answer is simultaneously worrying and confusing. NAV reveals nothing that we did not already know about its creator, and this is both disappointing and concerning. NAV opens with “Myself,” which is fitting: it’s previously released material, and he spends virtually the whole LP re-treading the same topics that he did in this track. “Myself” serves as a thesis, one NAV proceeds to spend the remaining half hour reiterating with monotonous abandon. “Myself” is a good track- its lonely, spacious melodies pair perfectly with its subjects of self-medication and disintegrating relationships, and the hook is an earworm. But it’s not strong enough to base a whole LP around, and it’s also the closest NAV comes to displaying real emotion on the project.
It’s normally this page’s practice to break down an album song-by-song, but that isn’t necessary with this release. Individual tracks bleed together, with NAV’s emotionless delivery blending one buzzword-laden bar into another. The beats are well-produced and pleasant, but they’re all are near-carbon-copies of one another. The tape’s a lyrical dead zone, devoid of any sort of wordplay, narrative, or meaning, and full of WTF-worthy moments such as “Remember these bitches ain’t wanna fuck/ Now she give me head outside of Toys R Us,”on Metro Boomin collab “Up.” Even a feature from The Weeknd near the end of the album isn’t enough to redeem this tape. NAV is little more than the ideas of “40” Shebib, The Weeknd, Future, and PARTYNEXTDOOR watered down and carried out by a lesser artist. There isn’t a single new idea here. While many will go into this project asking “who is NAV?”, they’ll probably come away hoping this isn’t the answer. Because if it is, then he probably isn’t anyone worth their time.