As genre slowly dissolves into the ether thanks to people’s increasingly omnivorous listening habits—fueled largely by the cross-current of streaming—music has come to sound a little like this and a lot like that, but never an entirely straightforward thing.
You can’t slot Moses Sumney, Yves Tumor, and serpentwithfeet, to name just a few, into any one category because they take from so many. That all of these artists are Black is important. Historically, Black musicians have been relegated to separate musical genres for little else besides race, as Karl Miller argues in Segregating Sound. Early A&R men operated under the assumption that white audiences wouldn’t want to listen to Black musicians, so they divided artists into blues and country, and later R&B and pop, despite similar foundational tenets informing both groups.
But as more artists borrow sounds from multiple genres to build their own, it opens the door to see their work in a new way—informed by race, sure, but not restricted by it. The Chicago multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, also known by the mononym NNAMDÏ, fit that new effort. He makes ambitious music.
I first met NNAMDÏ in 2015, when I interviewed the Chicago math/prog/electronic outfit Monobody. At the time, he played drums for the band, but had already released two solo albums of his own: 2013’s Bootie Noir, followed closely by 2014’s Feckin Weirdo.
It’s clear how much he enjoys wandering sonically, instincts he refines on his fourth and latest album, 2020’s Brat. Each track shape shifts to some degree, but what might seem disheveled on the surface instead builds into a revelatory statement. It’s been a minute since an entire album, not just a song, grabbed my attention so entirely.
Opening track “Flowers to My Demons” begins in stark fashion, with flamenco-esque guitar and NNAMDÏ’s voice. But stark in this instance does not mean quiet. The flurry of sound erupting between those two instruments fills out the firmament before drums enter halfway through to ground the interplay.
The album—an internal monologue of sorts that lays siege to notions of identity, perception, and even sanity—hinges on segues that happen as fast as the fleeting thoughts each track strives to capture. “Flowers to My Demons” takes one second, quite literally, before it switches into the synth-heavy, trip hop-leaning track “Gimme Gimme.” The shift is sudden and yet seamless. Across both, NNAMDÏ plays with two voices—his natural lower register and an affected falsetto representing a shadow thought that haunts the album, questioning his thoughts, actions, choices, and behavior.
The burst of energy which begins Brat eventually levels off. NNAMDÏ’s inner questions move from a manic state to something more dampened. On the breathtaking “Glass Casket,” he builds a dreamy, synth-laced R&B track that finds him imagining different futures, though every path feels impossible when you want it all. “I wanna be a traveller/I wanna witness everything/And then bring it to my bedside/I dream about it even when I wake up,” he sings so despondently that the confession feels quietly devastating.
Brimming as Brat is with worries, anxieties, and doubts, it ends on a hopeful note. The penultimate “It’s OK” resounds like a mantra, while NNAMDÏ builds the found sound of birds into the meditative final track “Salut.” Despite each song’s calm, meditative lyricism, they build mighty sonic atmospheres to inhabit. In this case, the sentiment doesn’t need to match the sound—it can serve as a contrast, building a picture of complexity that matches what it means to be human, because in the end we’re all a little like this and a lot like that, but never an entirely straightforward thing.