New York rapper Destiny Frasqueri’s rise has been more measured than meteoric. That’s partly because she’s spent the past decade dabbling in various projects and indulging every facet of her personality and musical taste. She has performed under three monikers (Wavy Spice, Destiny and her current stage name). She made her feature film debut in 2019’s Angelfish, a wistful coming-of-age story set in the Bronx. She’s not signed to a label, and her musical output is testament to this. Her back catalogue leaps from genre to genre and back with complete disregard for the concept of ‘personal branding’.
Early releases, such as 2012’s ‘Posh’, were inspired by the New York Ball scene. On her first album, 2017’s ‘1992 Deluxe’, she began to hone her unique style of hip-hop, taking spirituality, femininity and Afrocentrism in her stride. Her 2018 mixtape, ‘A Girl Cried Red’, meanwhile, was unashamedly emo. It’s safe to say that we’ve come to expect contradictions and curveballs from Princess Nokia.
In many ways, her latest musical offerings live up to this reputation. Princess Nokia surprise-released two albums this week, ‘Everything Is Beautiful’ and ‘Everything Sucks’– an ode to her Gemini dualities. The former is a representation of her sensitive side, all hip-hop, neo-soul and head bopping. The later is dark: a trappy, subby, ravey 10-track rage against the machine.
There are moments of brilliance on both records. DC hip-hop duo Oshun provide sweet relief above a staccato bassline on ‘Everything Is Beautiful track ‘Sunday Best’ (if you burn sage, now is the time to do so). Here, and on ‘Soul Food y Adobo’, Nokia is full-on Nuyorican (a portmanteau of ‘New York’ and ‘Puerto Rican’), her verses interspersed with Spanish and references to Latin American culture. On ‘Gemini’, Princess Nokia sinks deep into the track with her signature low register. It also features a pleasing hat-tip to The Doors track ‘Riders On The Storm’, a phrase she mumbles throughout.
Where ‘1992…’ was fresh and distinctly Princess Nokia, though, ‘Everything is Beautiful’ feels a bit like a playlist of her favourite artists. On ‘Wash and Set’, she channels the US R&B singer Abra’s lazy, reticent vocal style, while ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ could have easily been lifted from a Noname or Chance the Rapper album. The latter track is big on ‘90s nostalgia: she references the drink Sunny Delight (“orange and sun”) and the music video was inspired by the 1996 film Matilda. ‘Blessings’, too, is all Chance in subject matter. A collaboration with the Grammy nominated producer Terrace Martin, best known for his work with Kendrick Lamar, it feels buoyant, simplistic and hopeful, like a hazy Sunday morning.
‘Everything Sucks’, on the other hand, was written in the space of a week – and it shows. The first three tracks, ‘Harley Quinn’, ‘Crazy House’ and ‘Welcome to the Circus’ , transport listeners into a creepy funhouse. The result is shouty, often lyrically mediocre and at times hard to listen to. On the opening song, she yells “fuck you” for 10 seconds straight.
Nokia eases up on track five. ‘Fee Fi Foe’ is a pacy rap number on which she practises some good old hip-hop bravado over heavy bass and pan pipes. ‘Balenciaga’ is the standout track here, a tongue-in-cheek bop first released last November, on which she extols the virtues of vintage fashion over designer wear. “Sketchers looking like Balenciaga / Thrift clothes looking like they’re Prada / Whole fit lit it cost me nada” she raps in croaky tones.
Thematically, ‘Everything Sucks’ and ‘Everything is Beautiful’ fail to deliver anything new. They have all the hallmarks of a Princess Nokia record – female empowerment, introspective monologues about her childhood and Bruja spirituality (a type witchcraft practiced by some Latin American populations). On ‘Practice’, she continues to lament being an industry outsider, something she’s been doing since day dot.
Musically, she is yet to develop a cohesive sound. ‘Everything Is Beautiful’ fails to match the hip-hop and neo-soul magic of ‘1992 Deluxe’, while the rock and trap-influenced ‘Everything Sucks’ lacks the novelty factor of ‘A Girl Cried Red’ or the quirky charm of older tracks such as ‘Goth Kid’. ‘Everything Sucks’ often feels a something like a musical patchwork quilt; all the sounds are stitched together but remain distinctly separate. Perhaps, given Princess Nokia’s notoriously protean nature, this is the point of this whole project.