I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to say that 2017 has been somewhat of a slow year for hip hop, or at least comparatively speaking. With the past few years turning over some of the most genre-defining rap records of the decade, and perhaps even of our generation in the case of Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly, I try to remain conscious of the fact that most hip hop heads are likely holding 2017 up to the exceptionally high standard set by the last handful of years. What’s more, a lot of people fail to take into account underground activity amongst the rap scene, instead focussing wholly on the mainstream acts. By this metric, even with the past few years yielding a great deal of hip hop albums of a particularly high calibre, 2017 has nevertheless been rather fruitful thus far when it comes to more alternative and lesser known rappers. Many of my favourite rap releases of the year so far have surfaced from hip hop’s underground, including new albums from Oddisee, Quelle Chris, Your Old Droog, billy woods and Trial of the Golden Witch, as well as the recently released record from milo, which I’m yet to even review. With an album from Open Mike Eagle scheduled for release before the year is up, it honestly seems as if many of the most abstract and abstruse wordsmiths that the underground rap scene has to offer have conspired to solidify 2017 as one of the most bounteous years for alternative and experimental hip hop in quite some time, and Uncommon Nasa, powerhouse of the New York underground, is throwing his two cents in with his newest endeavour, Written At Night.
Since first being exposed to Uncommon Nasa through his sophomore project from 2014, New York Telephone, I’ve come to view the MC as the lifeblood of New York’s contemporary hip hop climate perhaps more than any other rapper, even other favourites of mine from the Big Apple who have been met with a much more substantial amount of commercial exposure than Nasa. I attribute this to the fact that, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest success of New York Telephone was just how potently Nasa managed to entwine his obtuse, conceptual lyricism with the essence of grit and hardship that comes with inner-city existence to paint a broad, but no less detailed, portrait of life in the United States’ most populous metropolis, wrapped up as a loving homage from Nasa to the city that made him who he is. This even shone through in the instrumentals featured across the album, with Nasa not shying away from spitting over some incredibly dense, cacophonous, bustling beats that sampled everything from Frank Zappa to the sound of rattling subway cars. As may be clear from this description, however, New York Telephone and, indeed, the rest of Uncommon Nasa’s material is far from accessible. On the surface, this could undoubtedly be ascribed to his style of delivery, which prioritises conceptuality and wordiness over fluidity and catchiness, making for an approach to rapping that can come across as deliberately clunky at times. What’s a lot harder to penetrate, however, is the content of Nasa’s rhymes, which require a great deal of commitment on the listener’s part in order to completely decrypt. Although the challenging nature of Nasa’s esoteric rhetoric and hectic instrumentals could certainly turn off some listeners, persevering through the rapper’s opaqueness can return an exceptionally rewarding listening experience, and this is unequivocally the case on his fourth album, Written At Night, but for slightly different reasons compared to his past material. This is potentially as a result of Nasa handling the record’s production entirely himself and thus having full control over the album — bar the eclectic hub of guest rappers brought into the fold — but Written At Night seems to cover more territory than many of the MC’s previous projects, in the sense that the tracklisting brandishes some of his most accessible and direct deliveries, as well as some particularly cryptic moments, even by Nasa’s standards. The end product, however, could be said to balance out as meeting the same degree of obtuseness as much of the artist’s previous work, especially with the thematic presentation of Written At Night reading rather similar to that of New York Telephone. In fact, I would say this is true to the point that Written At Night almost feels more like the spiritual successor to New York Telephone than Nasa’s third album, Halfway, at times. Nonetheless, it’s easy to aimlessly ramble on about Written At Night, given that there is so much to unpack in its arcane conceptual delivery and busy beats, but for the most part, Uncommon Nasa’s latest effort may be both one of his most challenging and rewarding releases to date.
In terms of the production across Written At Night, perhaps more so than on any previous project from Uncommon Nasa, many of the expectedly left-field beats seem to be anchored firmly in more orthodox fundamentals that make for some genuine points of direct and potent catchiness. Pinpointing exactly why this is the case, however, can prove to be a bit more tricky, as although there is undoubtedly a balance between the more accessible and unconventional aspects of Nasa’s production, this is a rather precarious balance, and many of the quirks employed to skew the listener’s perception of a track seem notably more subtle this time around. Even simple tricks, such as mixing the vocals slightly off-centre, can provide that semblance of a loss of perception from the listener’s perspective that has made the rapper’s previous output so engaging at the best of times. Naturally, if the listener is presented with some production techniques that throw them off balance slightly, they will probably end up paying far more attention to what is going on amidst the organised chaos of Nasa’s beats, partially out of intrigue, but also simply to remain conscious of what exactly is happening. With so many tracks playing with space in as strange a fashion they do, it’s certainly best for the listener to have their wits about them, as some of the more idiosyncratic beats also prove to be some of the most striking when duly noted. For example, not only are the vocals largely mixed into the left ear on Small Change / It’s 2AM, but so too is the bulk of the cut’s instrumentation, from the hollow, tribal drumming to the bouncy synth melody, whilst the right ear is largely dedicated to some swirling cascades of synthesized squeals, with the mix coming together to form an oddly hypnotic whole, largely due to how well the whirling electronics and primitive percussion play off one another. What’s more, with the song boasting guest verses from three additional MCs, the fact that each rapper manages to find their footing so well atop this deliberately disorientating instrumental is especially impressive, with Duke01 and King Kashmere in particular slotting seamlessly into the beat’s buoyant rhythm. The Patient strikes some similarly compelling points of instability, with the warbling torrents of buzzing, wobbly electronics and sharp stabs of synths and guitar cushioning the labyrinth of reverbed and multi-tracked vocals, as they surround the listener in a way that simultaneously entices them and scrambles their brain. Even amidst some of the more accessible instrumentals, Nasa is sure to throw some sucker punches at the listener, in the form of amusingly prolonged and seemingly arbitrary pauses in the icy, plucky synth lead and sluggish beat on God’s Aim, or the distant, punchy guitar stabs and ominous brass swells that create a fierce sense of tension during the bubbly, organ-driven cocktail jazz of Gingerbread Hag / It’s 4AM. The latter cut also features some of the most well-integrated guest appearances across the entire album, with Brzowski’s gruff delivery complementing the smoky, jazzy timbre of the track perfectly. With regards to guest verses, it’s actually on some of the tracks that lean a bit too far towards the obtuse side of the spectrum for my liking at times that are redeemed by the rappers brought onto the cut, with the likes of Open Mike Eagle and Quelle Chris, who are no strangers to spitting over bizarre instrumentals, being reserved for such instances and put to work for great results. Extra Lives, with its quirky, meandering synths and almost 8-bit-sounding percussive embellishments, for instance, lends itself immaculately to Open Mike Eagle’s expressive delivery, which is placed in stark contrast to the gorgeous but intense refrain from Barrie McLain. Likewise, the disjointed, borderline ambient surges of coruscating synths and sluggish percussion on the closing title track are nocturnal enough to complement billy woods’ dramatic delivery, whilst also languid and subdued to the point wherein Quelle Chris was destined to appear on it. Overall, it seems as if Nasa’s choice to take the production of Written At Night entirely into his own hands may just have sparked one of his most sonically and stylistically audacious projects thus far, which is nevertheless rooted in some more conventional tropes, thus teetering between accessibility and obscurity as to create an especially dynamic usage of space and sound.
When it comes to Uncommon Nasa’s lyrical explorations across Written At Night, the framework in which the wordsmith finds himself, making the most of the lucid headspace that comes with writing into the early hours of the morning, provides a rather rigid thematic structure for the various topics — both personal and political — covered across the course of the album. As someone who shares Nasa’s enthusiasm for working in the dead of night (it’s currently 4:46 a.m. as I’m writing this), I won’t deny that I have a natural inclination towards resonating with the salient artistic philosophy behind the record, but, then again, I’m often led to assume somewhat of a sceptical or even defensive position when an artist tackles a concept that I find personally familiar. As for the way in which the rapper chronicles his nighttime ruminations on rather broad and thorny concepts, however, Written At Night is a poignantly revealing release for Nasa, whilst nevertheless remaining shrouded in the semblance of abstruseness that typically surrounds his dense reflections. As such, despite the comprehensive picture Nasa usually paints for himself, it can prove rather difficult for the listener to step back far enough to view the entire picture, as opposed to merely picking up on ephemeral moments of introspection, but the musician seems suitably aware of this, such as during his search for candid and unmediated expression on the second track, Speak Your Truth. With Nasa clearly extolling the calm and collected room for artistic articulation that comes with the clutches of night, the choice to employ guest rappers on every cut in the tracklisting past Speak Your Truth is an interesting one, but a decision that makes sense in context. Whilst many artists choose to work by the moonlight due to a lowered likelihood of distractions, Nasa’s reasoning seems more psychological, and perhaps even metaphysical, as if there exists some sort of thought traffic that gets clogged up during the day with the congested cogitations of practically every person, whilst the thought traffic at night is relinquished more to the likes of Uncommon Nasa and his fellow writers. If these fellow writers are the guest rappers brought onto Written At Night, then this decision makes perfect sense, especially given how well many of them interact with the thoughts and overall themes presented by Nasa over the course of the tracklisting. The artist’s inward-facing analysis of his lifestyle, how he has grown and the fear that comes with the prospect of change on Extra Lives, for example, is fortified by Open Mike Eagle’s admissions of self-doubt and weakness in the face of growth during his verse, whilst the succeeding song, Small Change / It’s 2AM, sees Duke01 weigh up the seeds of self-image relating to both confidence and cowardice that can be ingrained in one’s mind upon the occurrence of small-scale changes. It really is incredibly impressive how well Nasa’s collaborators tailor to the conceptual arc of Written At Night and, from the listener’s point of view, the inclusion of perspectives from numerous rappers helps them to understand the broader point of where Uncommon Nasa is coming from with the chronological, almost diary-like framing to his weighty deliberations with both himself and his peers.
Both in terms of the stylistic and sonic variety available throughout the tracklisting, as well as the more extensive presentation provided for the album’s thematic framing, Written At Night stands as perhaps Uncommon Nasa’s most accessible project to date. However, that’s not to say that the musician has sacrificed the core appeal of his branch of outlandish, progressive hip hop and conceptual ambition by any means, rather Nasa supplements these tenets of his artistry with some more inclusive and conventional elements that allow much easier access to his stylings for the average listener, although a lot of work is nevertheless required on their part. Ultimately, however, it will only ever be Uncommon Nasa himself who holds the decryption key to his arcane brand of art rap, but Written At Night certainly gives more of a leg-up to the listener than his previous projects, whilst still tasking them with a vast mountain of esotericism to scale if they are to properly explore the MC’s ideas to the fullest extent. This more accessible angle, overall, makes for an even more engaging and, arguably, even more rewarding release in Written At Night than any other undertaking by Nasa thus far throughout his career, and encapsulates much of what is so engrossing about the underground rap scene at this point in music history.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10