NNAMDÏ’s ‘Brat’

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.

All Hail King Stitt

When I first started collecting vinyl, I was exceptionally—almost stupidly—lucky. I dug up randos, took a chance, and ended up procuring LPs that would go on to become some of my favorites: Ride Me Donkey, Ted Hawkins’ Watch Your Step, and Brazil Forro: Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers (how can you pass on that title?).

Among that collection was Dance Hall ’63, featuring King Stitt. After I put the album on the record store’s test turntable and heard how the woozy sax trigged a warm beat, I was sold. But I had no idea what joy Stitt would bring to my life.

Stitt overtakes the album with his “toasting,” or hype and chatter which would go on to inform early hip-hop. You can still dance and enjoy the music, but Stitt has shit to say and you will listen.

Some gems: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous!” and “This sound is on top! On top of the world!”

He also clearly revels in telling the audience who’s playing and what they’re doing. “[Name inaudible] on the saxophone and King Stitt on the microphone,” he reminds dancers. He is as much a star as the music he’s spinning. He’s the MC, hype man, and liner notes, all rolled into one.

A dancehall DJ working in and around Kingston, Jamaica, Stitt (born Winston Spark) was actually a pioneer in the field, though somehow he thought his given name wasn’t suitable for the profession when really DJ Spark could’ve had an equally luminous career. Instead, he chose “Stitt” because of the stutter he’d had since childhood.

According to Stitt himself, he met Clement Dodd (known as Sir Coxsone), the famed Jamaican DJ, in 1955. Dodd was apparently fond of Stitt’s dancing and thought he could be fun on the mic. He had no idea. Stitt began DJing in 1956, and eventually became so popular, he added the “King” that gave him his full name.

I started this post by calling those early finds “lucky,” but really they far exceed that adjective, especially Dance Hall ’63. From my very first time hearing it all the way through, to subsequent listens—usually in mid-summer, after a beach day that soaks past your skin and down to your very core, offering some hint at what perfectly happy feels like—I think of King Stitt: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous.”

 

 

Listening for the Echo

What a quiet year it’s been. Musicians have soldiered on, gamely offering live streams and pre-recorded concerts, but the dearth of real, in-person shows has been palpable. I’ve felt that absence while settling into my new home in Durham. (Normally, I’d get to know the area and its venues by peppering my nights and weekends with shows.) But it also cropped up during the only mini-trip I took this year, when I decided to break up a lengthy two-week holiday stretch by escaping west to go hiking in Asheville.

I figured it was a trip I could do safely—driving over by myself, staying in a contactless rental, ordering takeout, and spending my time outdoors in the mountains. But I’d never been to Asheville before, and knowing its growing reputation as a music city, it felt bizarre to prepare a visit without booking a concert or two. Or five.  

That realization grew as I neared the mountain town. All the music we’ve lost this year—the living, breathing experience of it—panged even louder.

Absent any shows, I went looking for music in other ways. Field Report says it best in his aching song “Michelle” (off 2014’s Marigolden): “I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend.” In this Wild Year of Our Lord, I took what I could get. I trekked over to Echo Mountain, the former church-turned-studio, where numerous artists—Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Moses Sumney—have recorded, drawn by the room’s reverent sound.

The morning I set out to see where so many gorgeous songs have been captured, my map instructed me to walk toward French Broad St. But I misread it as French Bread St, and spent the better part of 10 minutes beaming at the name. Knowing I wanted to write about this excursion, I began plotting out how I could use the street’s name as my entryway into the topic. Foiled again! (But, really, who gives a hoot about French ladies when there are loaves to celebrate?)

Situated downtown, at one of the neighborhood’s higher points, Echo Mountain offers a clear vantage of the surrounding peaks, which makes its name all the more pertinent. In Greek mythology, the story of the mountain nymph Echo is a twisted one, but voice and song sit at its center. As the story goes, Echo angered Hera, who’d come to spy on her rapey husband Zeus during one of his cavorting trips, by talking too much and distracting her. Hera’s payback—directed at the wrong person, as always—included stripping Echo of her agency, forcing her to repeat the last words other people said. But although she no longer had autonomy over her own voice, Echo remained a powerful figure, giving substance and form to others’ words and reminding them of their existence. 

This year feels as though it’s taken so much from each of us in different ways—some large, some small. Here’s the part where I say something profound, something to add meaning to a moment that feels bereft of any understanding. But, alas, words fail me. I don’t have anything to offer by way of retrospective.

I’ll take a page from Echo, then, and leave you with someone else’s words—Sumney’s song “Lonely World,” which first appeared on his 2016 EP Lamentations. Throughout the track, Sumney repeats the word “lonely” until it becomes an incantation that builds into a thunderous crescendo near the end. That in and of itself encapsulates this year, but beneath the song’s lament, there’s a kernel of hope bound up in the power of creativity: “And the void speaks to you/ In ways nobody speaks to you/ And that voice fills the air/ Fog in the morning going nowhere.”

The song still hangs around Asheville, resounding and resplendent, and I look forward to hearing it on my next trip—echoes of all the music we didn’t get to hear this year and new melodies yet to come.

 

Phoebe Bridgers’ “Savior Complex” Video

Artists regularly release music videos, but now that we’re decades out from the golden age of MTV and its elder millennial cousin TRL, their impact feels closer to a pebble hitting the window. Don’t get me wrong, there are still grand visions and artistic statements—Childish Gambino’s “This Is America and Beyonce’s Formation,” for starters. And certain videos in recent years have stirred up attention, moving beyond a marketing tool to achieve cultural currency.

But on the whole, it seems as though it’s just an item on the album cycle checklist. Single? Check. Lyric video? Check. Music video? Check. Labels repeat that pattern until the artist tours and eventually begins working on their next album—when it begins all over again.  

Every now and then, though, something quirky and quietly beautiful comes along, reminiscent of the visuals that once earned attention for trying something a little different.

Screen shot from Bridgers' 'Savior Complex' music video showing her on the beach with a dog wearing capes.

That’s the case with Phoebe Bridgers‘ new music video for “Savior Complex,” off her album Punisher. She partnered with her snarky British counterpart Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame), who directed the visual, and Normal People‘s Paul Mescal. In it, Mescal plays as an emotional conman who finds his match in a wide-eyed and surprisingly evocative pup who doesn’t let him off the hook so easily.

In life, Bridgers and Waller-Bridge share a tender-hearted derision that emerges in their art. The video’s romantic framing (close-ups of the dog, the double capes near the end) and comedic editing juxtapose the song’s confessional solemnity: “Baby, you’re a vampire / You want blood and I promised / I’m a bad liar / With a savior complex.” The end result is oddly spellbinding, a short film that elevates the music video art form.

Now, someone find me a cape.