by Shelby Len
Brooklyn rapper Princess Nokia is no stranger to pushing the envelope of genre convention. She has a way of shapeshifting effortlessly between completely contradictory aesthetics, from her ethereal and futuristic 2014 mixtape Metallic Butterfly, to her gritty homage to 2000s emo and pop punk A Girl Cried Red, to her seminal neo-soul hip-hop romp that is 1992 Deluxe. What’s best about Nokia’s incredible creative scope is that in almost all of her cross-genre exploration she succeeds.
It was with this in mind that Nokia released sister albums Everything is Beautiful and Everything Sucks. Just like the titles suggest, the two couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. This project reminds me a bit of Kanye’s 2018 mixtape ye. You know, the one he opens with “I Thought About Killing You” and ends in earnestly expressing his worries and love for his daughters. What Nokia does differently is instead of giving her listeners whiplash by cramming her antithetical styles into one album, she conveniently separates her flowery, neo-soul sing/rapping from her dark and twisted trap rap (and with helpful names to boot!). The caveat here is that Everything is Beautiful and Everything Sucks are hardly as daring or engaging as her previous work.
Everything is Beautiful
Everything is Beautiful’s production was done in part by Terrace Martin, who helped produce Kendrick Lamar tracks such as the boisterous “King Kunta” from To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s hard for me to connect a track I love as much as “King Kunta” with, say, Everything is Beautiful’s opening track “Green Eggs and Ham”. To me, “ Green Eggs and Ham” sounded like a Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson track that could be found on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade playlist. It’s obvious with the jaunty piano riffs and perky 808s that Princess Nokia’s trying to hearken back to the sound of 1992 Deluxe. However, this reduxed version just sounds saccharine and toothless. Tracks “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)” and “Wavy” fall into the same potholes in terms of production, relying far too much on corny gospel and synth backing tracks to spice up what are ultimately musically uninspired songs.
What’s strange is that sometimes the instrumentation and production Nokia uses that sounds totally bland on one track will sound totally original on another. The piano that annoyingly punctuates “Green Eggs and Ham” sticks around in the following song “Happy Place,” only now it’s accompanied by a Tyler the Creator-esque xylophone riff and takes on an altogether whimsical and airy feel. Similarly, the sparse instrumental for “Wash & Sets” ultimately sounds like she hawked it off of some high school boy’s Soundcloud. Yet in “Gemini” with the addition of a nice walking bass line and a bit more texture she fashions it into a totally lush, warm lo fi soundscape. Where she seems to get most into her element on Everything is Beautiful is on “Sunday Best,” which, with the help of Onyx Collective and OSHUN, has the kind of self-assuredness and swag that makes it sound like a bonus track off of 1992 Deluxe (and I mean that as a high compliment).
One thing I love about Princess Nokia is how she never shies away from being vulnerable in her lyrics. A lot of what she has to say in her songs is autobiographical, whether it be about her being a goth kid and a tomboy (see the songs with the same respective titles), or her experiences growing up Puerto Rican in New York City. But when I listen to Everything is Beautiful, it feels like I’m listening to a story I’ve already heard before. Yes, Princess Nokia, I know you smoke weed, you told me so in “Wavy” but you also told me so in at least five other songs before you wrote that one. Or take the song “Wash and Sets,” where she laments the banal tasks that come with growing up over a cloud-rap beat . I know filing your own taxes is frustrating, Princess Nokia, but it’s something literally everyone has to do. You can tell her heart is coming from the right place, but these tracks just come off as whiny and prosaic.
Enter Everything Sucks. This entire album was produced in the timespan of a week, and it shows in the fever-dream, unhinged way the album plays out. Take the track “Crazy House,” for instance. The sound effect she uses in the refrain can only be described as resembling a gremlin, and that’s on top of a machine-gun like drumbeat and a collage of other sound effects she throws in (which include but are not limited to: women moaning, police sirens and doors creaking). Her bag of tricks seems to run dry after this, as the rest of the songs on Everything Sucks seem to rely on the same few production elements to keep the listener hooked. I guess there’s something to be said for consistency, but all together Everything Sucks winds up sounding like one long haunted trap song.
Although it sounds homogenous, one thing Everything Sucks excels at is creating atmosphere. From the opening bars of “Harley Quinn” I felt like I was in a cursed funhouse where Nokia’s inner demons are lurking behind every corner, waiting to jump out at me. For the most part, she sticks to rapping about how vulgar and gross she is (see the track “Gross”), but on other tracks like the raw and melancholic “Just a Kid” she opens up about spending time in the foster care system after her mom passed away: “On a sad day man I really miss my mother / Only get one and you never get another.” Everything Sucks isn’t without its duds, such as “I Like Him,” whose lyrics convey little more than what’s revealed by the title. Although “I Like Him” might have some really clever quips, it lacks the poignancy and depth of subject matter that’s present elsewhere.
The fact that I was only lukewarm about Everything is Beautiful and Everything Sucks might be indicative of Princess Nokia’s abilities as an artist. She has an incredible range, and she’s also incredibly self-aware of it, which is why we have Everything is Beautiful and Everything Sucks in the first place. She checks all the boxes she’s made for herself through her old work: genre-crossing, bold and thoughtful lyrics, etc., yet she doesn’t really venture further than that. Maybe when I first listened to the albums I was subconsciously searching for another anthem like “Bart Simpson” or something as ethereal and visceral as “Young Girls.” Needless to say, I came up short this time around.