‘I've always been comfortable with expressing myself vulnerably. I have more difficulty in restraining what I share...’
Evan Dale // May 9, 2019
Naji is an incredibly diversified artist fond of doing anything and everything to find balance in art and music’s ability to inspire introspective, disconnected escape and realistic, thought-provoking self-confrontation. Exploring ideals and duality in his music, most recently divulging in the balance between one’s femininity and masculinity through his 2018 project, Misfit, Naji is very aware of his music’s power and meaning, but still has no issue making it all fun and digestible. Well-connected and creatively well-endowed, his firm attachment to art and ethics make him one of the more important artists of the moment, and even if many haven’t heard his name, they probably will soon.
RNGLDR: We’re particularly drawn to artists like yourself who work without the confines of traditional genre or labeling. You’re an artist who instead transcends a variety of different styles that coalesce to create something ultimately unique. So, who are some artists that have been particularly influential to your musical direction that also give us some insight into how you developed a sound that transcends hip-hop, R&B, and neo-soul?
Naji: Off the top of my head, Flying Lotus and Pharrell come to mind. Because both were critical influences at different points in my life for different reasons, but they both vibrantly stand out and showcase the "other." FlyLo made me rethink what was sonically possible. Pharrell made me think about what was sonically acceptable. And I've always respected them greatly for that.
RNGLDR: First and foremost, we want to say congratulations for the release of Misfit, which is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and unique projects of 2018, all the while covering a vast spectrum of stylings that come to really define you as an artist. What is it like now having such a massive project in your rear view?
Naji: Lol, thank you! I have to say, before I released it, I was already ready to work on the next thing, as it's still a giant experiment to me. And I'm grateful for the response it's received, warm and otherwise. I really don't consider it to be my strongest body of work, but it has some of my strongest work on it! So my next undertaking is refining how I approach projects and album-long narratives, as I'm very comfortable in the singlesphere and great at making little vignettes, but I just want to become a better storyteller overall, and that includes figuring out the best context and messenger for my ideas.
RNGLDR: We want to ask, was the development of Misfit as a trio of releases always an intentional decision? From the very beginning, were you planning on releasing it in three stages, or is it something that simply happened organically?
Naji: Absolutely. Me and my teammate, Montylov, love movies and greater overarching storylines (think Marvel Cinematic Universe). So we thought it would be a cool idea to conceptually make albums and EPs that all have an underlying canon. We actually planned on doing a larger-scale album trilogy as well, but life and plans change.
RNGLDR: There is an obvious difference between the three Acts. Act l really feels like the most hip-hop-influenced portion of it all where you split time between vocals and cadence shifts that run Act 1 at a different pace. What was your thought process behind Act 1 and how did your creative process differ in its development?
Naji: So in general, I wanted to experiment with different sounds. I keep coming back to that, because I strongly feel that "Naji" is a continual experiment. Act I was meant to develop a character in the overall story, but also allow me to flex my creative muscles and see what people really resonate with in this context. In this case, the character e we created was Rouge, an embodiment of my femininity fighting back at being suppressed throughout my career and life. I wanted to challenge what people think of as femininity and show this masculine aggressiveness with an archetypal face. In other words, kinda flipping the social perception of femininity on its head and showcase how much of the feminine perspective we take for granted and pervert to fit a patriarchal society. The colors and every detail of the artwork were taking these ideals into consideration. Red is power. Red is life and death. Red is love. None of these concepts are actually gendered, but we tend to assign masculine ideals & values to them. I could go on and on, but at the end of the day, It boils down to me wanting to highlight the flexibility of these ideas and my personality.
RNGLDR: Act ll is more or less a series of experimental R&B duets between yourself and the impeccable Sara Diamond. Obviously, developing a more emotionally-evoking, sensitive act in itself probably required a different creative process, as did collaborating with a vocal counterpart. That being said, you and Sara seem to have an insane amount of chemistry. Was the collaborative process between you two as fluid as it seems like in the finished product?
Naji: It's funny -- my relationship with Sara is actually one of the most incongruent in my life. We connect, deeply, on a subconscious and musical level but otherwise, we barely speak to one another! I suspect it's because I tend to bring out her most vulnerable self, and considering we've only ever met for the sake of going into that headspace, it's easy to kind of compartmentalize me into that specific part of her life/energy. That being said, when we are there, it's a great time and I love listening to her pour her heart out in a way that only music can. Making songs with her is one of the most enjoyable events in my life, and the process feels as such! It's raw and honest and a little scary because she's such a great singer and I know my vocal abilities pale in comparison. But I think that's why it feels so compatible. What I lack in vocal ability, I make up for lyrically. And vice versa for her. That exchange of energy and utilization shows up in the studio and (thankfully) on the record.
RNGLDR: Can you give us an idea of how you two, from start to finish, go about creating such clean collaborative tracks?
Naji: We've never done anything remotely. I always end up going to her house or studio, mid morning. I usually pull up some tracks I've been working on, pull out a mic and just go back and forth trading ideas until we have a rough direction. Sometimes, we'll re-record to get solid takes, but a lot of what we do comes from those initial sessions. After I get all of her ideas out and takes saved, I'll go back home and go through everything, combine takes, re-record my own parts and mix and such. That's pretty much been how we've done everything.
RNGLDR: For you, how does the creative process differ when collaborating with someone as talented as Sara Diamond? How much of the process is mutual, and how much is really an individual effort?
Naji: The process with Sara is pretty 50/50, and that's what I love, honestly. As two writers, I try to give her as much room as possible to contribute, because I know that's she's vital to creating that chemistry. We trade melodies, lyrics, perspectives, and it feels so genuine because it is. Most of the individual efforts are on my behalf afterwords, as I'm additionally playing the producer role in most cases. And creating that final product is often on my shoulders, just due to the nature of my purpose there in the first place.
RNGLDR: You two do an amazing job of creating what is the most inventive and addicting series of R&B collaborative tracks in memory. And naturally, that portion of Misfit has drawn extra attention. For you as an artist, what about these tracks come so naturally?
Naji: Thank you again! :) I consider myself a great nurturer. I love working with people who know how to plant the right seeds, and I love being able to help those seeds grow and flourish. For me, the natural aspect comes in choosing people who I feel have really, REALLY good seeds, as I naturally work best with them.
RNGLDR: Lastly, the final three tracks which were added at the end of Misfit as the entire project took shape also came to have an identity of their own. What was the story behind those three? And why did you choose to have them close out the album?
Naji: Act III was meant as a combination of the two aspects explored in Act I + II, to sum up my own totality as Naji, The Misfit. Originally, it was gonna be 7 tracks, but I didn't feel the other 4 were ready for the project and decided to strip it down to the barest essentials needed. Drive, Blow + Id (When I'm Around You) I feel are the three closest representations of that femininity/masculinity balance I currently carry. They could tell a short story in and of themselves or be an A + B = C to the series. They're ironically the most abstract of all the tracks, and that's probably why I resonate with them the most. It's no attempt to distill myself into distinct parts, it is just me.
RNGLDR: You call yourself a story teller, and we certainly agree that your knack for weaving storylines is pretty unparalleled. For your part, what is the greater story at play across Misfit’s run time?
Naji: Misfit is a fable telling the listeners that to know oneself and to thrive is to accept who you are, not what you're told you should be. Who that is may or may not fit the labels we have in place to identify people. And that's completely ok. To be a Misfit is to have a chance to create a new means of interpretation.
RNGLDR: And what are the smaller storylines at play along the timelines of the individual acts? From where were the stories inspired? Are they personal to you?
Naji: As I said before, Act I is my femininity with an aggression. Act II is my masculinity with a softness and familiarity. Act III is the end result, me.
RNGLDR: All in all, Misfit is a pretty vulnerable project that discusses a lot of feelings on love, lust, and loss. Is it difficult to put out a project so personal and open?
Naji: Not at all. I've always been comfortable with expressing myself vulnerably. I have more difficulty in restraining what I share, as I've been known to be intense! That openness has hurt me before, but I've learned to appropriately protect what needs protecting.
RNGLDR: Has releasing such a profound, vulnerable project been somewhat of a psychological release for you?
Naji: Of course. The feeling of actually having a body of work to call my own is release. The process of making it and having these thoughts and ideas tangibly exist is another form. Making and playing music has always been a form of catharsis for me.
RNGLDR: The album artwork seems to be certainly making some statements about mental health and public image. What is the significance there?
Naji: The artwork is meant to represent the struggle of maintaining the image that we create for ourselves instead of adapting to who we change to be over time. We constantly find new ways to describe ourselves and link up feelings to words and terms, but with every new wave of understanding comes a new wave of uncertainty. I may like how something fits and feels, but does the public? I may want to change what kinds of music I make, but will my audience be open to it? We're constantly updating our own database and reference for who we are but often scared to implement the changes. But appearances can only be kept up for so long. We all have to eventually accept who we are and live to be our truest selves even if that destroys who've you been so far.
RNGLDR: On the topic of the album artwork, it’s also incredibly eye-catching and beautiful. Who is the artist and what was the inspiration?
Naji: The artist is this talented UK creative, Komikamo. I saw his clown series and instantly fell in love with his eye and aesthetic! It kinda perfectly represented this surreal world I wanted to portray with the project.
RNGLDR: A lot of people – ourselves included before we heard Misfit – may not have been aware that Monte Booker’s hit single, Mona Lisa features you on vocals. What was it like working with Monte Booker?
Naji: Haha, song credits are very critical! Working with Monte was really quick, actually. He hit me up over Twitter and I was able to make 90% of what you hear on the track within two hours. The rest came over the span of 4-6 months, just sending him drafts and seeing what he thought.
RNGLDR: As a producer yourself, what did you learn from someone as innovative and unique as Monte Booker?
Naji: I will always value him as being the first person to tell me, creatively, what I did was good, but it could be better. He was the only one who really pushed back and forced me to make it even better.
RNGLDR: Are you planning on working together again in the future?
Naji: Lol, of course, but he's stupid busy, no longer does remote collabs, and is terrible at answering texts [laughs], so it's up to whenever another "Mona Lisa" fluke happens, really.
RNGLDR: On the subject of collaborations, you’re an artist that seems to thrive within their bounds. In your opinion, what is it that makes a perfect creative collaboration?
Naji: When you can hear the clear influences of everyone involved and it feels like a greater product as a result. Like the difference between a well-mixed cocktail and over-sweetened lemonade, haha
RNGLDR: We run a series called Collab Elation exploring hypothetical collaborations that we want to see in the music industry. If you could choose any two artists to work together, who would you pair up and why?
Naji: I would love to hear Tame Impala and "Songs About Jane" Maroon 5 make something! I feel like that would be an undeniable bop machine.
RNGLDR: And how about for yourself? Who – if you could choose any artist, past or present – would you choose to collaborate with?
Naji: I would love to work with Babyrose, Quickly, Quickly, or Rosalia!
RNGLDR: Now that you have Misfit in your catalogue, what’s next for Naji?
Naji: I'm getting in my writing bag, haha! I want Naji to take a backseat as an artist and focus on two other group projects, while still writing for others!