Navy Blue and the rise of Ambient Rap

Photo by Patrick Johnson/Hypebeast.

Regardless of the names cycling through your playlist, hip hop/rap holds a special place in the music canon. It was birthed in black and Latinx neighborhoods of the 1970s Bronx, and evolved as it weaved its way through the country. Different regions adopted and styled it to their liking, and now the genre is as diverse and beautiful as it has ever been, beyond just the chart-toppers that routinely receive the spotlight.

That beauty isn’t more evident than through a quick listen of Navy Blue’s recent debut duo of albums in 2020. A former professional skater, Sage Elsesser slowly trickled into music since 2015 under the stage name Navy Blue. Smooth, mellow, and vibing are what comes to mind after reflecting on my first listen. The music took over and erased my surroundings in what was my first real dive into appreciating the subgenre I’ve come to know as ambient rap.

Characterized by jazz-styled synthetics with a heavy atmosphere, combined with a dynamic lyricism that extends beyond just the bar, ambient rap is an incredibly niche style of alternative hip hop that has grown through indie and self-produced projects and was invigorated by a legendary emcee. The late MF DOOM was a pioneer in the genre, generating a lofty and legendary status that garnered respect not only in hip hop/rap but all throughout the music industry. His seemingly effortless ability to craft story and emotion through his rhymes, overtop samples, and blended chords, paved the way for recent artists that took the torch and sprinted off with it.

The ambient art has particularly blossomed through recent years, with large acts like Earl Sweatshirt seemingly leading that sprint with firm command. Described as a prodigy of hip hop, young Earl has become a unique purveyor in the industry because of his characteristic deep voice and dense rhymes over many a similar hypnotic beat DOOM rocked. Earl may be the most well-known in the ambient kingdom, but many names deserve respect as they push the subgenre further as an art and in prominence to the world, taking on from DOOM’s influence.

Navy Blue is one such heir.

First introduced to his second 2020 album in Song of Sage: Post Panic!, I found myself entranced by Navy Blue’s tone and cadence. The pacing of his words are relaxed but confident with structure and substance. A focused ear can tell that he feels every word uttered on the track. Every word is enveloped with emotion and life experience. Reflecting on his father’s mentorship, the trials of his surroundings, and dealings with mental health, Navy’s words connect to deeper emotions within the listener and I can confidently say I found myself in that same boat, swaying with the waves. Àdá Irin, Navy Blue’s first debut album released last year, projects similar sentiment and vibes that caress the ears delicately despite the often non-rhyming, unstructured line after line in each stanza. What is impressive is his ability to describe. The imagery is so vivid and his word choice projects clear mental pictures that can transport the listener to a place where the experience is almost nostalgic, even if the listener cannot empathize.

From Love Is… on Navy Blue’s debut album Àdá Irin:

“My timid soul weaken in the deep end
I float along, drift alone
In my momma home
Why’d my poppa die?
And poppa’s poppa died

I realize his spirit embedded sacred headdresses
Bro it’s been a second
Couple years like a minute, trust my intuition
Smoke breaks, nothing less than intermissions
Interceptions like safety first
On the job until the day disperse and the stars glimmering
Shimmering like a water surface in the daytime”

Navy Blue embodies what seems to be a stream of consciousness, verses that go and go and go because the emotion is so raw that sometimes it all has to come out as quickly and fervently as it’s felt. And that is what makes ambient rap so enticing of a genre to melt into. His peers are extensive, including names like MIKE, Billy Woods, Maxo, Mach-Hommy, and the aforementioned Earl just to spotlight a few. Each artist embraces the guiding light that is the lyricism to produce wondrous projects that are emphatic, spiritual, yet stoic.

What unites all of these artists under the umbrella of ambient rap is the subtlety of the beat. The lyricism takes precedent, allowing artists to flow beyond the bar like MF DOOM before them, pushing their message with such magnetism because the focus isn’t drawn to the beat. Unlike the heavy bass or high-octane rhythm of more commonly popular projects in rap today, ambient rap’s blood flows through the poetry written onto a page and spoken by the artist. The track flows and the beats are just as vigorous in their appeal, but those words, those feelings they make listeners like me feel are what stand out, making the subgenre one that will last well beyond these immediate years.

That ability to make a listener see, to feel, and to place themselves right in the thick of the song’s essence is what makes ambient rap one of the most authentic, genuine, and zestful subgenres of not only hip hop/rap, but in all of music. It is truly a timeless art form that should be embraced and appreciated by all fans of hip-hop/rap both young and old.

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