Princesse Nokia: tout est beau / tout sucmaart 1, 2020
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The comedian Hannah Berner recently posed a question on Twitter: “Does anyone else feel like they are a lazy perfectionist with ADHD and chronic fatigue who is pretty chill besides the occasional panic attack and loves their friends but hates people?” The answer, at least among the many people I know who shared the tweet, seems to be a resounding yes.
In a climate of absolutist cultural politics and rigid personal-brand guidelines, it can feel risky to embody harmless contradictions in public. Princess Nokia’s two new albums are presented as a response to this paradigm; on the jointly released Everything Sucks and Everything is Beautiful, the artist stakes her right to duality, no matter how seemingly oppositional. There may be something in the air: Moses Sumney has described his new album as an expression of multiplicity. Noname recently announced a mini-run of shows pointedly called the Hypocrite Tour.
If anyone would take the mantle of divergence as ethos, it’s Nokia, who has proudly and loudly collected a number of identities over the years. “I’m a weird kid. I’ve got so many personalities eatin’ me up inside. And I think that’s the basis of the music and my whole identity,” she said in a 2017 interview. The albums funnel some of those identities and their respective musical styles into two distinct modes. Press materials describe Everything Sucks as “a brash, ruthless and insistent collection,” and Everything is Beautiful as “a representation of the sensitive, feminine side of the gender fluid artist.” It’s almost a little too on the nose.
Everything Sucks was made primarily in the span of one intense week in New York, with friend and producer Chris Lare (aka owwwls), and that tight turnaround is evident. Its 10 songs are a locust swarm of angst, restless and frantic, as one can become in a city so densely populated. The first four tracks are zealous fight songs with lyrics like, “I’m the monster under your bed/I’m the goblin from the dead” and “Who dat, who dat, who dat?/The bitch is back/Who dat, who dat, who dat?/I will attack.” You can practically see a moshpit forming while a devil circles her left shoulder. There’s a preemptive, almost B.Rabbit-esque listing of her flaws: she’s crazy, she’s gross, she’s generally a mess, and what of it? The closer “Just a Kid” is an exception to the aggression, an awkwardly delivered but vulnerable story of the traumas of her early years, including a stretch in foster care.
Nokia finds more success on Everything is Beautiful, which, in comparison, is warm and expansive. Made over a span of two years, including some time in Puerto Rico, it has the optimism and groundedness of being in a place where you can occasionally look up and see a wide sky. The production, with beats primarily by Tony Seltzer and 1-900, are peppy and bright, and the themes spiritual and forward-looking, like an antidote to the hellishness explored on Everything Sucks. The jazzy sounds that have shown up in segments of New York’s reinvigorated independent rap scene offer a welcome complement—via the downtown crew Onyx Collective and Los Angeles saxophonistTerrace Martin—to Nokia’s experiments with effective but technically imperfect vocal styles. One song, the gentle and self-deprecating “Heart,” is ready-made for a sync on a future season of Insecure: “I hate social media, I wish it all would end/I’m not like those other girls, in fact I’m fucking worse,” she raps. This is Nokia at her best, a relatable, unpretentious narrator of her own growth.
For someone proud to have resisted the industry machine, both albums show that Nokia is adept at making music that fits neatly within its bounds. There are familiar flows and familiar sounds throughout: she out-Chances Chance the Rapper with a version of his signature sing-songy delivery, snarls in Cardi B’s clipped flow, and resuscitates the plonking piano that gave OG Maco a hit some years back. It’s easy to grow tired of her insistence that she’s a misfit, until you consider that scores of artists have built careers on similar narratives with far less self-awareness. And yet the album’s best moment comes in the form of a poem on an outro track: “I survived from trauma and I’m living out my purpose/And I’m sure you are too, we’re really not that different.”