ALBUM REVIEW: Navy Blue, Song of Sage: Post Panic!
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
It seems like as each year passes on, the wickedness of society seems to surprise everyone less and less. This especially hit hard in 2020. So many prominent celebrities died by unnatural causes, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans from a disease that is only continuing to get worse in 2021. I knew of many people who were unable to visit their family members who were COVID+ or even have funerals for them. “Dreams of Distant Journey” from Navy Blue’s excellent new record Song of Sage: Post Panic! uses a vocal skit to address this upsetting reality head on, “I never think when it’d die/You’d have to grieve the hell out of it/Cause if you don’t grieve it, then it never was really alive”. The album is often complex in its delivery but blunt in its confrontation of American societal woes including but not limited to police shootings of unarmed black men, absentee fathers, idolization of ancient racists, depression and PTSD. All of the issues are filtered through the unique lens of Navy Blue (aka Sage Elsesser). Despite the fact that he’s a Supreme model, professional skater, Frank Ocean affiliate and also a talented lyricist, his skin color is sadly all that a police officer has to know about him to profile him and follow up with any unjustified actions they see fit to do.
Elsesser’s background is difficult to find with a Google search, but the amount of personal detail he reveals about himself on this record is enough to fill an entire “Early Life” section of his Wikipedia page (which does not currently exist). The amount of references to his heritage are endless, but here are just a few. On “Sea Bass”, he raps “I came from socialists, Chilenos, I’m a vocalist”. The entire song “Ponderso” from it’s Latin influenced bossa nova beat, to lines recited in Spanish, to its entirely Spanish outro pays homage to his Chilean heritage. Meanwhile, songs like the title track as well as “Enough” and the cinematic “Tired” make countless references to the injustices and brutality levied against the black community. Being “woke” becomes almost futile when there is not even an acknowledgement of guilt via a police indictment, “And even when our people screaming for some help/Can’t hear us, scary news, the sh*t a living Hell”. It’s easy to get tired or fatigued when trauma is a loop that starts with outrage, results in no justice and ends in either more outrage and just complacency. It seems like 2020 was the year of “don’t broadcast the reason why riots are occurring, just broadcast the riots”. The opening to this track smartly uses two symbols of oppression, dogs (from the civil rights era) and helicopters (from the Rodney King era) to set the scene of a world where violence breeds hatred and hostility in the hearts of the oppressed. This often causes the oppressed to act out in rage and then be accordingly suppressed by the state unlawfully and often lethally.
Like his contemporaries Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, Blue was abandoned by his father at a young age. Obviously, this is a result of many of the issues I just addressed, but on a more personal level, the effects of the action on his life are apparent in his clever lyrics. The key to understanding his personal suffering is apparent in the line “I been feeling baby blue just like my father’s cigarettes” from the best song on the album “1491”. Over a vintage soul vocal loop and Dilla sirens, Blue is essentially saying that he’s been feeling sad (blue) ever since he was a baby (Baby Blue —> Navy Blue) after his father left for "cigarettes" at a young age. The line is also a double entendre considering his father may have literally smoked a baby blue pack of cigarettes. He continues to get more depressed as he ages, and that’s why by this point he’s not naïve or light, but rather a darker and more jaded shade of blue (hence “Navy Blue”). This sense of built-in depression haunts the record and is dealt with through unhealthy coping mechanisms like “Smoking through dawn and dusk” on “Moment Hung”. Weed acts almost like a therapist for him on this project, he uses it constantly to try and forget that which weights heavy on his mind.
I can go on and on about the themes of this record. There are references to race, heritage, sadness, spirituality and history repeating itself are as consistent as the beat work. Similarly to fellow underground fixtures Earl Sweatshirt and Mach-Hommy, Elsesser crafts his own soundscapes by extracting the soul from vintage sounds and updating them for his modern uses. The result is a timeless sound with lots of character, from the ‘70s radio glow of “1491” to the haunted funk of “Post Panic!” to Dillaesque soul swing of “Moment Hung”. He skillfully weaves his own rhymes between the sampled voices of the dead to not only pay homage to them, but also to grieve them and make sure they are not forgotten. I will admit it’s odd to hear him spit the line “On your mark, Offset, go/I’ll Takeoff like Quavo” over a beat that sounds like it’s not from this era. But just like Frank Ocean did so flawlessly on both Endless and Channel Orange, Elsesser uses modern cultural touchstones to put the listener in the here and now. “Wear a mask, wash your hands, or fall victim/Pick a casket, lay in it/The death wishes don't last” he raps on the chorus of “Memory Lane”, one of the three good COVID bars of 2020.
His talent for spitting multi-meaning, internally rhymed bars is definitely on full display on this record. He’s not at the MF Doom or Earl Sweatshirt level just yet, the way he rhymes doesn’t really vary up or get more experimental throughout the record's 53-minute run time. The selling point of the album really is the content of the lyrics, and how personal he gets. “Self Harm” definitely sticks out to me as extremely personal, a low point emotionally for Navy Blue. Over a low-key, jazzy, faded beat, he spits “Self harm is not the way to go, just a way to cope lately” and “my own home got ghosts that I brought in here, get ‘em out”. At his best, as on “Self Harm”, “1491”, “Dreams of a Distant Journey” or “Aunt Gerry’s Fried Chicken”, he proves himself to be the very best of the Earl-associated acts. Compared to MIKE, his delivery and songwriting is much more intriguing and direct in my opinion. He can convey feelings of grief and rhyme about being faded to cope without actually sounding like he’s like he’s high. His voice is also much more distinct than people like Maxo, Medhane or even Mavi, he doesn’t just sound like Earl with a slightly different inflection (no disrespect to those guys). He doesn’t sound quite as self-assured and deadly as Mach-Hommy, but I think with time, he will continue to make himself stand out.
The features on this album do a relatively good job at keeping up with Blue and furthering the themes of the project. Maxo rhymes about his friend going to jail for 15 years and then smokes to suppress the pain. billy woods pops up on “Ponderoso”, using his gruff voice to spit morbid bars like “Afternoons wander the catacombs, tomes line the rooms/Every room a tomb, every shelf hoarding doom” while the vocal sample that ends the song talks about being at a graveyard alone. Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) gives the best feature on “Breathe” with great lines like “the sun remains greater than the laboratory laser” and “Three C’s for your consideration: contact, cosmic, constant.” The album is mostly a solo venture, and even with such a robust track-listing, Elsesser offers enough talent and content to warrant multiple repeat listens.
I guess I could’ve said this sooner, but I’d like to say I am not a black man and I understand that I am not really the best equipped to be reviewing this album or any other hip-hop project for that matter. When I heard him say “never phased by a white critic”, I was happy to hear him address this. There is a dimension of this album that you really must have direct experience with to fully understand. I’d just like to say thank you Navy Blue for being so honest with your point-of-view and so pointed with your takes on systemic racism. It’s not only entertaining but educational, it helps me to better understand your perspective as a person of color in the United States and the hardships that you were born into just by not being white. Thank you for helping us all grieve or “be blue” if only for 53 minutes, in a time when people are often denied the ability to mourn, an album like Song of Sage: Post Panic! is an essential listen, a communal experience. It seems like this album is only now getting media attention in 2021, even though it was released on Dec 22, 2020. So as far as I’m concerned, this is not the best album of 2021 so far, this year is the year of Navy Blue.