Uncommon Nasa knows I can’t sleep. He knows that when I try to close my eyes, I find myself winding through a droning series of paranoid thoughts and anxieties. At least, I get that sense listening to his latest LP Written at Night, which I listened to exclusively at night and often while driving down deserted highways. Structured in four acts—from midnight to four in the morning—the New York emcee captures the spirit of the enigmatic city creeping up on you as you creep up on it. The record thrives off the fraying edges of an exhausted and tenacious psyche.
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You will know a Nasa song from a few major things: his voice, his off kilter deliveries, and his knock-out beats. Spend some time with a Nasa record, and you’ll start to know him for the finer details, like the way his drums are mixed. Then there’s the strongest aspect of Nasa’s music: the writing. Nasa writes like a city-planner, meaning things are densely packed and beautiful from most angles. Images appear and reappear as the ‘view’ changes, as you round the corners of the maze-like songs, as you let things settle in the spaces Nasa creates with his beats. While this distinctive style suits me, we can all admit that the city isn’t for everyone, if you catch my drift.
Out on Man Bites Dog Records, this album is something I’ll describe as elastic escapism. On a track like “Extra Lives,” Open Mike Eagle’s voice tricks your ear. The beat brightens up, and though it was just midnight, you start to wonder if the night already flew by. This is the magic of the record: the constant displacement. Just as you fall out of the frame and into the warped woes Nasa pens, something snaps you back into a more concrete place.
I could dedicate a separate review to the beats, but that would spoil the fun. On “God’s Aim,” the main line sounds like stars falling out of the sky. On “Gingerbread Hag,” the beat encircles you with an almost campy-stride. “Small Change” sounds like the sophisticated version of a tune that plays when you’ve won at the arcade. In much the same way you’re constantly playing catch up with Nasa’s writing, your ear is constantly picking up on meticulously laid minutia. His 2015 effort, Halfway, still surprises me two years on.
The legion of rappers Nasa brings together on this record reads like a set list for the grittiest festival, packed into your favorite late night haunt. billy woods, Quelle Chris, Short Fuze, Brzwoski, and more feature on nine of the eleven tracks on this album. We can call it feature heavy, and we can even say that not every feature is well placed, but what we can’t say is that anyone’s feature was weak. If anything, the host of guests on this album reads as overeager more so than they do egregious. I found myself adopting a “back to Nasa” attitude around the middle of the record.
When the features work, though, they really bring to life the haze of those late night hours. They provide relief to the moments where Nasa can get overly pedantic, and they showcase the versatility of Nasa’s beats. Title track, “Written at Night,” holds together the entire record, specially because of the guest verses. The esoteric sign-off from Quelle Chris lets the album fully taper off into the intersection of late night and early morning.
In a lot of ways, this is Nasa’s best record. Not as directly sentimental as Halfway, this album is more winding and explorative. The concept succeeds and feeds back into itself, which might imply there is no resolution to the album. The answer is both yes and no, but we can attribute this limbo to the ‘setting’ of the project. Uncommon Nasa is an artist who excels at capturing time and mood, and making them newly tangible. The more abstract his concepts, the more gripping his music.