Gangway for Navy is one of the most personally poignant, obscure hip hop projects released thus far in 2019. The avante-garde soundcloud release from artist and producer Navy Blue delivers soulfully nebulous snapshots into the life and mind of a young man endeavoring to make sense of the dynamic world around him. Sage Elsesser aka navy blue (the truest) is a 22-year-old professional skater who seemingly has an infinite number of tricks up his sleeve. The former roommate and longtime friend of Earl Sweatshirt has modeled for Supreme, had his voice sampled on Frank Ocean’s Blond, has his own sneaker collaboration with Converse, and has put out numerous, thought-provoking musical projects on Soundcloud for the past three years. At just 22 years old, he’s been able to garner an impressive number of titles, experiences and connections.
Given Sage’s accolades and star-studded friend group, you might expect to hear another clout-wielding cool kid mumble rapping about his newfound abundance over titillating trap beats. Instead, you find an almost claustrophobic collection of soulful, sonic sketches centering on a young man critically examining and engaging his surroundings. Where you’d expect frenzied, hurried thoughts and bars on coming of age, you find choppy samples and staggering flows, weaving from one metaphor on growth to the next. Where you’d expect low or no concept songs, you find tracks laced with lofty, overarching themes on the realities of blackness, the nature of family ties, and the importance of maternalism.
Using deeply personal anecdotes from his own life, the project also alludes to the famously ancient dictum from the Trial of Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. With gangway for navy, Sage fiercely examines every inch of his universe, leaving no stone left unturned. He continues his emerging literary tradition of reflecting on his ancestral roots, exploring and experiencing the many different flavors of grief, contemplating the nature of his relationships with himself and others, and coming to terms with where his frenetic energy and interests have taken him in life.
The production on the 12-track project, entirely provided by Elsesser, is one heavily built on warm, soulful samples, cohesive loops and phrases, and loud, distorted percussion hits. Cant Take Me features some of the most distorted, low bit production on the project, as well as some of the most somber, cyclical lyrics and trains of thought. He layers hissing open high hats and tight snare hits with a dry, thumpy kick, over a distorted, melancholic rotary organ cycling around a minimal chord progression. The cyclical, static nature of the minor chord progression helps provide the beat with an insular, claustrophobic feeling, as do the lyrics. He begins the song with:
“ spent time at the center, all alone”
And goes on to reflect on the things he’s seen on his journey inward: self hatred, guilt and loneliness. Likewise, these themes circle back and forth throughout the project. As Sage explores the depths of his own psyche, you can’t help but feel inclined to do the same. The track echoes Socrate’s ‘raison d’etre’, or reason to live, which hinged upon understanding Delphi’s most famous maxim, “know thyself”. It can be argued that to ‘know thyself’ is predicated upon ones ability to ‘love thyself’. Here, Sage expresses that the self love one needs to know oneself is inherent within each of us. Another line in the song mirrors this position:
“love for myself, know I had it all along.”
Nonetheless, Can’t Take Me reveals Sage’s level of commitment to growing more aware of himself, and his capacity to be humbled by that knowledge.
Lyrically, Navy Blue’s verses read like alternative prose poetry one would witness at an intimate open mic night. He’s concerned with displaying the deeply personal and mundane in a way that reveals the inherent, sublime beauty of everyday occurrences. His bars consist of jam-packed rhyme schemes, punctuated by choppy flows and an often monotonous, deadpan style of delivery, which gives his verses a messy, stream of consciousness quality. He employs numerous internal rhymes, alliteration, and assonance to blast through years of his life in just a few lines. At the start of apprehension, he raps:
“ apprehension in the air
sister built strong
money was scarce, now we bring it home
momma always there
we, been alone”
In these first five lines he describes his family’s struggles and poor origins, he references the strength of his maternal figures, and locates and places us in the present moment with “now we bring it home”.
His varying intonation on certain words throughout the project, coupled with his fearless use of imperfect rhymes and densely packed metaphors can sometimes produce a dizzying effect, which understandably may be a turn off for some. For me, the strange, unpredictability of his words and the work required to catch and understand it all endlessly piques my interest. I appreciate that I sometimes struggle to keep up when listening, and I’m never exactly sure where he’s going with a particular metaphor until a few verses later.
His style is deeply entropic; mirroring the chaos that often describes the modern soul’s blotchy stream of consciousness. To be able to express that chaos effectively, not only with lyrics and delivery, but with sound, flow, and the thoughtful placement of so many different literary tools is a testament to Elsesser’s budding artistry.
Thematically, navy blue’s lyrics immediately reveal he is concerned with deepening his knowledge of self, and the impact that he has on those around him. In his shared reflections, he utilizes earthly metaphors and natural imagery to illustrate his often lonesome, observant perspective. On apprehension, he raps:
“my staff in the earth- and then appear a chasm”
This short line illustrates how he sees himself in the world: as a strong willed, sometimes divisive force. A chasm can be described as either a deep fissure in the earth or another surface, or as a profound difference between people, viewpoints, and feelings. The natural references of splitting the earth may be an attempt to speak to how his own beliefs and standards of truth and honor have left him isolated at times.
Family ties come up a lot for the 22-year-old as well. He raps endlessly about his family and friends, but almost always shifts his focus towards the maternal figures in his life. On the first track, apprehension, he paints the picture of his family’s origins, positing his mother, his sisters and his grandmother as guiding lights and pillars of strength for the family. The line “momma made it work” is placed and referenced throughout navy blue’s entire discography and serves as a motif or a reminder of his mother’s resourcefulness. He even says it in the same way throughout each track it’s referenced in. On the song, slow down, he raps:
“momma made it work
since I could remember,
Sisters in it with me too, I’m not the sole breadwinner…”
The way he positions and references women as leaders, matriarchs and breadwinners throughout his music is a much needed breath of fresh air from the ubiquitous misogyny that is entwined in rap. Hip hop is so deeply rooted in misogyny that it’s almost unrecognizable to those of us immersed in the culture, much like water to a fish. But here, navy blue simultaneously establishes his lyrical cannon and attempts to queer hip hop’s relationship to women. He’s not just holding off on calling them bitches and ho’s for a song or two, or empowering them while also infantilizing and sexualizing them. He simply doesn’t include that kind of dismissive characterization. The thankless physical and emotional labor of women, particularly black women and black mothers, is often overlooked and taken for granted in day to day life and within most spheres of entertainment. To have the ability to go on Soundcloud or Youtube and hear a young rapper authentically exalt that perspective and experience is truly an astonishing feat for the culture, and also provides us with much needed glimpses into the future of this newly emerging experimental hip-hop scene.
On the song deathmask, we find navy wrestling with many facets of his own lofty image. He places his anxieties, his curiosities, his blackness and his grief, on display for us in just two minutes. The song begins with one of my favorite seemingly simple lines from the project:
“shadow with me while I’m steppin’ on my own resentment”
It’s an intricate gem that I missed repeatedly on my first few listens. His shadow being with him speaks to the forlorn nature of resentment: it’s an extremely insular, isolating mix of bitter emotions that you can only really deal with on your own. Resentment and the nature of bitterness are themes I’ve been reflecting on in my own life recently. At what moment do you realize you’ve become bitter? What conditions best allow resentment to fester? Someone can hurt you and you may end up allowing resentment to bloom, but ultimately, it only blooms inside of you, as you have allowed it to. His shadow was the only thing with him when he allowed the resentment to fester, and thus remains with him as he’s stepping on and hopefully over it.
He also briefly addresses the frenetic energy he lives his life with:
“life scatter in all directions, I was overzealous”
Here he could be expressing concerns for where his life has taken him (music, skating, modeling etc). Maybe that’s where his resentment stems from. Likewise, I’ve been reflecting on the influence of my own frenetic energy recently. As someone who has lots of seemingly distant yet interconnected passions and interests, I’m learning that you don’t always get to choose the things that interest you endlessly. I’m convinced that that stuff is written in the stars and influenced by your upbringing and the things you’re exposed to as you come of age. The only thing we really get to choose is what we do with those interests and passions. You can either let them wither away, or you can follow them and see where they lead to. It’s important to keep moving forward, while also acknowledging that every choice and decision that is made terraforms the tangible future.
On deathmask, he also contrasts what his life has become with what his ancestors lives once were over a few simple, sampled piano licks. Here we begin to more fully understand the weight he and his family place on knowing their origins:
“and poppa taught me our ancestors were tarred and feathered
and brought across the sea, bodies swinging from poplar trees
I wore a modernesque version, my burden haunted me
I cautiously approach the rather daunting sea”
Here he remembers and honors his ancestors and says their fates and fears have become his in a more modern form. His ‘modernesque version’ could be the hoodie, and the daunting sea he approaches could be the world and its perception of him.
On the song carlos, he enlists fellow New York resident and experimental rapper MIKE to further expand on generational trauma, and the modern realities of being a young black creative. MIKE, with his brassy, commanding voice also references his ancestors and uses natural imagery to further conceptualize his experience:
“born with the struggle from these parents of ours,
They be gazin, they compare me to stars,
Backstage, my black face can be what barriers are,
But on the stage, I think I’m nearly a god
While reflecting on his tangled roots and the realities of his day to day experience on carlos, navy blue also dives deep into trenches of the relationships in his life. This is where he’s most unambiguous and memorable. Here he expresses his desire for more from his friendships. He wishes others could be more, or had more to offer. How many of us have had these same difficult feelings at times? He says these brash, vulnerable truths with an inspiring strength and confidence behind him, acknowledging the repercussions they may have. His first verse stopped me dead in my tracks when I first heard it:
“you was never there when I needed you,
I could count the years when it hurt the most
Strength, I wish Ben was honest soul,
I wish George was an honest soul,
Growth, these words, know they hurt to hold
Grace, give thanks know I’m not alone
As he pauses, letting the word ‘Grief’ linger in the mix, we can’t help but to get the sense that it’s an emotional experience he tends to embody these days. Yet, there are no hints of shame or self-pity when he shares these vulnerable truths. We must assume that his voice, enveloped in gleaming rays of confidence, was birthed from this practice of creating and holding space for oneself to experience, reflect, and grow.
A gangway is a nautical term for a passage, or a way through. Sailors often used it as an exclamation, to say ‘make way!’ or ‘get out of the way!’ In the same way, Gangway for navy makes way for a new wave of expression in hip-hop. As Sage exposes his efforts to make sense of the ever-changing, imperfect world around him, gangway for navy carves out a space, or makes way for us to listen, reflect, and hopefully do the same for others. Throughout the months I’ve spent living with and listening to this project, I’ve been able to reflect on the strength of my will, my morals and my relationships. Am I an honest soul? Am I a good friend? At the end of the day, I think good, relevant art is supposed to cause those questions to bubble up and rise to the surface. Maybe it won’t happen on the first few listens, but if you give it some real time and space, this is a project that has an intentional, reflective quality that might cause you to take a deeper look at the way you move through the world. inretrospect rating: 79/100
Gangway for you.