After a lengthy break – by his standards – of nearly two years, it seems like the ongoing criticism of NAV’s work might have finally gotten to him. He’s long been thought of as a wallpaper musician coasting off of the fame of his more popular labelmates, but on his fourth studio album, NAV actually shows some personality for the first time. Falling in line with his recent string of decent features, Demons Protected By Angels smooths out some of the Punjabi rapper’s most unlistenable qualities (his incessantly repetitive melodies are replaced by the ever-so-slightly more favourable melody-free meandering, for instance), and settles in at a pace that can best be described as “just regular boring.” It’s great to see him striving to improve and showing that there’s a human under that nasal, robotic delivery, but unfortunately, it’s still a NAV album – and his popularity has once again made me sit through an overlong tracklist of watered-down trap, phoned-in features, and oddly specific bars where NAV continues to make it clear that he’s never heard of a slant rhyme.
The project opens with “Count on Me,” a brief intro where NAV pulls an Eminem on Kamikaze and pouts about all of the criticism he receives, annoyingly seeming to tie it in to being rejected as a person. Despite the rhythm-free minimalism and the washed-out production on the end of the track that makes NAV sound like his memed Astroworld feature, the song at least signals to the audience that NAV cares about something, which I would never have believed beforehand. Unfortunately, the next track, “Baby,” is one of the most similar to NAV’s old ways, picking a single melodic phrase and repeating it until listeners’ brains explode. Lulling me into a stupor with his sleepy lower register, the only thing keeping me awake is a cascading piano in the back that’s so barely audible it feels like the ringing echo of a headache. One of the biggest problems of NAV’s career crops up again here due to some awkwardly disjointed words – he’s simply unable to make a single thing sound cool. That has to be the #1 thing a rapper needs to do to be successful. NAV’s nasal voice makes him come across as a nerd cosplaying as a rapper, saying all the generic buzzwords but failing to be anything close to believable.
While Lil Baby and Travis Scott are equally asleep at the wheel on single “Never Sleep,” which features an obnoxious whimper of a synth noise in the beat, “Dead Shot” features the first of two appearances from Lil Uzi Vert, who is genuinely, by far, the best part of this album. Uzi and NAV’s deliveries are quirky and cartoonish for different reasons, generating an odd sort of chemistry – though NAV often struggles to flow as well when they begin trading bars. Still, Uzi brings some energy and NAV’s final verse might be one of his best ever despite the ghostly beat sounding like a leftover from Uzi’s awful collab project with Future.
The track “Last of the Mohicans” is one of the places NAV starts to break out of his robotic shell, addressing some of the tragedies and controversies of the rap game as of late. From the guy who was a complete void before, hearing him speak about something he actually cares about in his relationships with YSL members both deceased and fighting legal battles is a new experience, and the track contains some of NAV’s best bars yet – the Kurt Cobain one is top-notch. Still, NAV oddly reports his losses just as much as his wins, and he continues on “Demons In My Cup,” where he makes the decisive line of the chorus a threat to anyone considering beating him up. Of course, this just brings to mind the hilarious image of NAV, a famous rapper, having been beaten up before. His awkward phrasing continues, shoehorning in obligatory lines about money and cars in the most unnatural ways so they fit. “Playa,” with Gunna, sounds like an AI-generated rap song, Gunna out-NAVing NAV with a couple unsavoury lines. Future does as well on “One Time,” but in the effort department, sounding like he’s rapping while in a coma while NAV’s Auto-Tune is at its most glitchy and obnoxious and everything appealing about Don Toliver’s voice is washed out by an avalanche of reverb. Worst of all, however, is “Weirdo,” which leaves me entirely spent in two short minutes. The beat consists of indiscriminate bleeps and bloops set to no discernable rhythm, and you have to hear NAV doing tired triplet flows in his grating voice on top of it. It’s insanity-inducing.
The hilarity continues into the album’s second half, with tracks like “Loaded” and “My Dawg.” Bringing Lil Durk on board for a track about brotherhood, Durk essentially does what he does best and speaks about the dangers of street life, as NAV ends his chorus with a truly confusing line about two friends punching enemies with fists glued together that makes him sound like he came from the cushiest of lifestyles in comparison. “Loaded” finds him repeating the line “all of my pockets exploded,” and because NAV has resting sad voice, it sounds like he’s genuinely despondent that his favourite pants got ruined instead of communicating the intended meaning. “Don’t Compare” features some awful layering that sounds like a choir of droning NAVs and extended segments with no percussion, something that continues onto the track “Lost Me.” RealestK sounds like a discount Weeknd on the hook, while NAV descends onto the swirling, dreamy piano instrumental like it was any other song, running through robotic triplets. “Interstellar,” on the other hand, might be NAV’s best song ever. Of course, he only has a single verse on it, while Lil Uzi Vert dominates the rest in his own neon-coloured wheelhouse – but that NAV verse is the most energetic of his career, in a bit of a higher, more fired-up register than usual.
Things continues to wind down with NAV mostly on autopilot as usual – there’s another moment on “Mismatch” where it’s clear NAV pays no attention to what he’s saying, with the line “I could show you how to turn a million dollars into ten” – but the closing track is genuinely touching. “Ball In Peace” is an emotional ode to a friend and producer that passed away, and it really feels like NAV is speaking from the heart and not just saying what he thinks rappers are supposed to for the first time. Sounding genuinely emotional when he wishes for a last phone call, the track fades out with a pretty synth outro from the one and only Mike Dean.
While there’s still a lot to be desired, NAV has made an album that would successfully function as background music instead of having people scramble to turn it off for the first time, and that’s progress. With a couple breakthroughs here, who knows – maybe this is the start of further improvement.
Favourite Tracks: Interstellar, Dead Shot, Ball In Peace
Least Favourite Track: Weirdo