Naeem's 'Startisha' is a Wildly Experimental Roadmap of his Artistic, Social Journeys
Evan Dale // June 15, 2020
Dug into to the side of a building in a part of town most have forgotten, but all would be quick to remember if spurred, the shrapnel of an explosive Baltimore Club movement now lies dormant. Far from its epicenter, but immortalized in certain adjacencies, now LA-based Naeem is birthed anew before us. With his real name, his newfound moniker’s debut project, Startisha comes a decade and a half on the heels of his alternate artistic ego, Spank Rock’s violent YoYoYoYoYo. And though the new aesthetic isn’t a complete removement from the purposefully outrageous explorations of his deepest demarked past, it is a necessary renaissance for an artist that was seemingly always bigger than the pigeonhole his early success stuck him into.
Without research, it would seem Naeem is a product of the now post-genre, transcendentalism riddled grey area of musical inexactitude. With Startisha, he meanders here and there; hip-hop, rap, and spoken word; neo-soul and R&B; indie and folk; and a wide-ranging swatch of electronica. But really, those are just his building blocks. Those stylistic adherences mark a life hellbent on slicing into music’s outer reaches and blowing up those fine incisions with crossroads of what he’s heard, and liked, and done himself elsewhere. He’s a blendalline musician whose DNA has been rerouted by the trendy sounds and the timeless signatures that have defined his own wandering path since the beginning. Unfortunately for him, his wildest success demanded that he not evolve. So, being an artist, he did anyway – just with a new, old name.
Naeem’s Startisha is startling proof that the idea of genre is utter bullshit. Artists are people, and people – whether they like it or not – are more complicated than to only answer one call. Anyone with passion likely has more than one. And everyone’s arrangement of interests themselves are divided into many. The best pastry chef certainly has a focus, but I’m betting they can cook a steak better than you or I. To wit, Naeem raps, but he can sing, can produce, can experiment wildly with their coalescence, and can probably dance, too – just an assumption by the tune of his one-of-a-kind sound.
Regardless of his moves, his movement across music’s soundscape are telling of an artist. And though he’s particularly complex, he isn’t alone in his exploration of it all. He is, however, undeniably a pioneer – socially as one of the first openly-gay rappers in the limelight – musically as one of the more gradient, indefinable artists in music. Startisha is his roadmap of a journey to defy expectation at every creative turn. You can hear the journey in it.
Let Us Rave with Velvet Negroni and Woo Woo Woo with Amanda Blank & Micah James feel cut of a reminiscent cloth. More nuanced, refined takes on the upbeat, unnerving exploits of Naeem’s foundation with Spank Rock, they thrive in the heart of Startisha’s opening half as a reminder of his roots, and an exhibition of the vines that have continued growing even as mainstream audiences and grimy Baltimore warehouse parties have neglected the realities of evolution.
Yet, on either side of the Baltimore Club two-pack present in Startisha, you’ll hear Naeem dialing in on a new trick. Soulful vocals stretched thin into the pain and emotion pulled from falsettos and bellowing lows shine a light where his creative expanse his only ever been darkly absent. And truthfully, the moments where percussive, echoey foundations give way to the emotive imperfections of a longtime rapper turned something else entirely more bridging, are the moments of Startisha that will come to highlight Naeem’s budding new wave. Simulation which pulls in the sounds of longtime friends and collaborators, Swamp Dogg & Justin Vernon (Bon Iver’s frontman) is Startisha’s first vertex – a peak display of a new sound’s rap-sung-produced center point in perfect balance that Naeem has been attempting to unearth for four years en route to the album’s release. Right Here and Startisha again bring the undeniable highs of a certain experimental harmony that really hasn’t been fused anywhere else, while Stone Harbor gives us a pop-nuanced electro dance anthem just in time for Pride.
Startisha takes one final U-turning change of pace to close it out as unexpectedly as can be expected half an hour into a soundscape being vividly brought to life in full-picture for the first time. Naeem uses Tiger Song as a pedestal to speak his truths at a moment in history that calls for a lot of social commentary. The politically charged, lyrically endowed bout lasts almost five minutes with wasted breaths and meaningless provocations entirely absent. In result, Tiger Song lives up to its fierce titling and emerges an exclamation point – a risk well-taken – to stamp an impossibly inventive album with one last mark of raw experimentation and self-assurance.
Like his future, Naeem’s Startisha is experimentally vivacious, completely unpredictable avant-garde art that requires a listener to step out of their comfort zone for the sake of creative and social evolution.