It’s easy for people to put on a peaceful facade and betray themselves at the slightest unforeseen convenience, but that’s not the case with LA-born, Brooklyn-based multihyphenate Navy Blue. He has issues getting his dog to chill during a couple of junctures of our recent Zoom call. Some may have lost their cool, but he peacefully called them to obedience before easing back into the conversation. Even through the screen, our conversation radiated a calm that makes it easy to see why he’s become regarded as one of the most thoughtful lyricists of his generation.
On Thursday, he dropped Ways Of Knowing, his 13-track Def Jam debut. The project is the result of a four-year collaborative process with LA-based, London-born producer Budgie, Grammy award-winning producer Om’Mas Keith, and a slew of talented instrumentalists and vocalists.
“It wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice or decision,” he says of the live instrumentation that permeates the project. “It [happened] as I grew and understood I didn’t want to live in the confines of ‘this is how a Navy Blue record should sound.’” Navy says he wanted he and Budgie to channel the collaborative energy of projects like Jay-Z and No I.D.’s 4:44 or Ka and DJ Preservation’s Days With Dr. Yenlo, where “you can feel the unity between the producer and the rapper.”
Throughout our conversation, Navy Blue, born Sage Elsesser, reflects on how his latest project is laced with breakthroughs and affirmations of his own recent life and times. Like much of his work to date, the album offers vivid reflections on loved ones like his grandmother and late grandfather. But Navy says he also wanted to differentiate this from his previous releases by making a project that felt more fleshed out structurally.
“It’s more complete thoughts,” he says. “Honoring the structure of a song, more use of hooks and experimenting more with my sound, and trusting that people that are fans of me would go on this journey with me. And I wanted to make something reflective of where I’m at currently and what the journey looks like. Because it’s like to get where I’m at, I had to do new things. I had to do things that I didn’t think that I would have needed to do, and they were completely necessary.”
The project was recorded at Budgie’s home in LA, where they rode the good energy from a couple of songs and ended up with a full-length project. “It was just really as simple as like, Hey, Budgie, let’s make some joints,’” Navy recalls. “I think anytime that I’ve done something collaboratively with somebody, it’s been like, we do one joint, we do a second joint, and you’re like, yo, should we just keep making joints?” They got up to 10 tracks, but later recorded even more and selected the final 13 from that pool of songs.
Navy says the album title refers to the “ways of knowing that I don’t know. What I think I know might not be it, and to remain teachable and malleable in the process, there’s always going to be a new experience that informs the way I think about everything.”
Navy Blue spoke to Rolling Stone and broke down some of the tracks on his new album.
“By no means am I saying that I’m [a medium]. I was just saying that binding force, that glue that connects my subconscious to my conscious mind, my body to my spirit, and the opening lyrics of “Hold up, slow down for your own sake,” it’s like I’m speaking to myself and my response is my heart on the ground for the moment. Then my response again is “what you know about self-love?” My response to that is, “desolate can’t be touched.” It’s a push and pull that ultimately levels itself out where much like a scale in that regard…it finds balance. It’s constantly teetering until when my grandfather comes in at the end, his grace has it at a good spot on the scale where it feels harmonious.”
“The line, ‘Too many days I wore that God damn muzzle’ is one of my favorite moments on that song because I really meant it, and it stems from an early memory of biting my teeth and biting my jaw or tightening my jaw because I had so much to say, but I just didn’t have the words or the courage to express myself. And it’s really the grace and courage that I’ve been able to receive. It’s given me the ability to just speak from the heart and say what I think, just speak about my experience in hopes that it could suit somebody else’s hurt, make them feel heard, understood. Maybe give words to an experience or give words to somebody that has a similar experience but doesn’t have the language.”
“I wanted to come in strong in a way that’s like, “I’m happy.” This makes me want to dance, makes me want to move. And the first line of that song is “I can’t stop from loving me.” And I did that song at a time that I had this newfound self-care and self-love and wanted to have a good time with rap and reflect on little moments. I’m not really a flexin’ ass rapper, but I was flexin’ in my own way. It just felt right. Budgie also had something to do with that and it was also inspired a lot by The Alchemist.”
“Al always talks about the fluctuation of an album where it’s like you go one place, [then] boom, you go to another place. I tend to do this slow rise and I wanted to experiment with that with a joint like The Mdeium, and then boom, [a song that] feels like an LA joint where I think about being in my neighborhood, being in Mid City or whatever it might be, thinking where I’ve been. It just felt right. I can’t explain it. And I always think that number two on a album is really important. Where you go with the second track is incredibly important.”
“My friend Steven Traylor [is talking between verses]. He’s one of my best friends. He brings me so much joy and he makes me laugh. Humor is big for me and is also a very familiar thing. I grew up with people that like to have a good time and laugh, and [his talking] just made me laugh. Hearing Steven’s voice to counterbalance the fact that I’m rapping is funny. [It’s also my way of honoring] the people that I care about and put on display the things that I cherish about these people in my life. And as it comes to a close, when he is talking, he’s like ‘Navy Blue, the motherfuckin’ truth.’ It makes me smile.”
“The title was self-explanatory, but my experience with it is that it was my first experience of true unconditional love, my longest-standing relationship, and I did that joint when I was sitting in the space of mourning and grieving something. And again, the whole theme and thesis of the album is honoring what makes me me, whether that’s love as it pertains to relationships, friendships, [or] family. I also just wanted to get jiggy and make a joint that’s sweet.”
“To Fall In Love”
“Budgie is a big collector and lover of lover’s rock, and it’s also a paying homage to Dipset. But in my own way, it’s leaning into what the original Barbara Mason version is. It’s a beautiful song. And to then transmute that surrender when she’s like, “yes, I’m ready to learn.” It’s so simple and beautiful, “I’m ready to learn to fall in love.” And where I’m coming from was reflecting on that process and honoring every aspect of it, the guilt of wanting to fix things. I felt like putting it in a song is the most honorable thing to do for me, in terms of my feelings. Because if that sits within me and festers, it could come out in a different way in a different song. And it’s another one that makes you nod your head. It’s sweet.”
“And then there’s moments on there where we are giving shouting out West London where my pops is from, where Budgie spent a lot of time, where I think where he’s from. I love that joint. [One might] think Navy Blue doing a “love song” might be corny per se, but it feels natural. That’s also my own interpretation because I can be incredibly judgmental of myself as we all can be as human beings. So it was cool to be vulnerable in a way that I’m not generally vulnerable. It’s generally reflective of the inner turmoil and the grief and the trauma, but a very pure place that almost every human being gets to experience, that falling in love, it’s a beautiful thing.”
“We were over at Budgie’s crib with Zeroh. Budgie played that beat and instantaneously, I looked at Zeroh. And I’m just like, man, my verse is pretty long on that one, but I feel like I have a lot. And just this album is incredibly gospel-inspired, allowing myself to sing more. I’m not the greatest singer, but I think that there’s a certain charm to that kind of singing when someone sings because they want to sing. It’s like we sing along, we listen to Whitney Houston, we know we’re not about to be Whitney Houston, we still sing along to Whitney Houston because it feels good. So it felt good to sing on that joint, but the title refers to just living life on Life’s terms and accepting that and what that looks like for me.”
“We wanted to break it up and have a joint that felt like a little interlude, a shorter moment. And Budgie gets credit on that one. It was a really cool process where I recorded on one beat and I was like, “man, I don’t know how I feel about this.” I like the verse, but [the beat’s] not really doing what I want it to do. He was like, “yeah, I feel you.” And then boom, a day or two later, he sent me a remix with another beat under it.”
“I was like, “wow.” And it’s a beautiful moment that happens between “Life’s Terms” and “Phases.” It’s like a seamless transition that the homie Venna came in and brought to fruition in connecting the two songs together. I was like, “wow, yeah, this is it.” It lends itself perfectly to what I was saying. Budgie did a great job with that one and not just being like, “okay, cool, let’s do another one” because I tend to do that. If I record on something, it just lives there. The verse might be great, I might have just not done it to the right thing and the right moment, but I just had that verse and he molded it into something really special.”
“The last thing I say on the first verse is “I gotta everything I could ever want, I just gotta breathe, feather weigh a heart, hit the kill switch,” so I wanted something to solidify the hook. The idea of putting background vocals there came from Terrace Martin. We were playing him the album when we were over at Jason Joshua’s spot mixing, and he kept giving us little things and he was like, “when that comes in, I’m hearing background vocals.” I was like, “huh.” And to have him listen to it and give us his opinion on it was incredible. And then I was like, you’re absolutely right. And it takes it out of a place where it’s not, it’s a joint in 3/4, it’s got that groove and it just felt right. And I hit up the homegirl Kelly Moonstone, who’s featured on “Window To the Soul,” an incredible singer, artist, and producer. She’s such a sweetheart I hit her [for background vocals] and she was like “okay, I got you.” I sent her a voice note of what I was hearing and boom, just did it and it worked out great. I love that song, man, it’s one of my favorites.”
“Window To The Soul”
“Me and Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon did a joint called Beautifully Black, and when he sent me the joint I was like, oh, “who is this?,” because Kelly’s on there. Her tone is just so rich. And she can rap, just a multi-talented person. But yeah, [“Window To The Soul”] is again [about] the subtle flexing, but in my own way. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul or windows of the soul, I’m not quite sure. But I imagine a singular window, if we’re singular, if we’re just a body, it’s a window to the soul, which is me. And I said a “ceiling meets the wall” as in a box or whatever, that’s the body that my soul is in. But I also don’t think that my soul or my spirit are stuck in this body, in this physical thing. I think it’s certainly beyond given our comprehension of what this is.”
“I had done something where I was on the cover of some Vogue thing, I said, ‘find me on the Vogue, I’m like a ballroom star.’ And what I said there, I was like, ‘it’s saluting the ballroom scene’ and I’m a cis male. I’ve only ever been to one ballroom situation [as] a fly on the wall, and I know that it’s not my space to exist in, but I still love it. I love the energy. And then I thought the face is one of the categories, and I was like, “the category grace,” and I felt naturally because of what I was alluding to, I didn’t want more hyper-masculine cis energy on there. I was naturally like, “yeah, I would love to hear a woman.” There was a bunch of people that went through my mind, and when I realized that Kelly was the one — I had been in communication with some people and they couldn’t really dial it in — I was like, “wow, this is the perfect person for this who understands the reference that I’m making.” And then boom, she got me the verse super quickly, sent me a voice note [like], ‘Hey, check this out, what do you think?’ And I was just like, ‘yeah!’”
“[The line, “project you as a Jezebel, but that was insecurity”] was from an experience that I had with someone where I was making judgments of actions that they had made, not to me, but to someone else that had me questioning my worth. But the thing is that the next line is, “eternity is met.” And eternity for me is again that acceptance, that place that’s everlasting where I saw that it was a projection of my own self-worth. That’s something that I’ve struggled with is impending doom, thinking of the worst thing.”
“[The line “I admire deeply those who teach me how to live desire” refers to] family, the same people that I said that this is all for. It’s my family, my friends, and my loved ones. A lot of important people in my life, [especially] the important men in my life. My grandfather, my dad, there’s older men that have things that I want. And in allowing myself to remain teachable, I can apply those things that I see in them to my life. For my grandfather it’s like, this grace and this poise. And with my father, it’s like his introspection and he wants to learn as much as he can, he just always remains teachable I think that’s a really incredible quality to have. He’s always reading, he’s always researching about things that he’s interested in..it’s similar to a line I said on “Phases” like, “I could never know enough.” I was living like I knew enough. Understanding, although I have a lot of information, I can always attain more.”
“And then after that [line I say], “I acquired vanity, Insanity is repetition. Looking for an outcome that’s much different than the lasting the devil is a lie. Times of dire as they ever will be, overwhelming days is what my guilt breathes. I’m healing. The process of the topic that I feel free to speak on. I’m looking for a soldier I could lean on.”
“That’s the thing about lyrics, it’s like one moment, but there’s so much more to it. It’s like if I say, “Hi, my name is Sage and I’m grateful to be alive,” it’s different than you say, “Hi, my name is Sage.” It just feels like I’m just saying what my name is versus the other end of it. In the name of it, felt like a gospel joint because it’s like I’m singing and there’s a level of acceptance and surrender in it where I’m like, “I can’t do this on my own,” in the hook. And when I say gospel, it’s not like my grandfather was Christian. But I mean gospel and just godly music that acknowledges that presence that is almost inexplicable.”
“Ka told me I was a conscious rapper and I was like, ‘What you mean?’” I think of what a conscious rapper is. What we think of that is when we say that term. And he said, “Because you’re conscious of what you’re saying and what you’re putting out there.” It’s not however it might be perceived.”
“That was another thing that I trusted Budgie with, bringing in Venna to play sax. I love that joint. It feels so childish and Liv.e did backgrounds on it and smoothed out the edges for me. It feels like a nursery rhyme, but inspired by Gary Bartz. That piano play [is from] when I was experimenting the most in [the song’s] early stages. I just love little moments on there [such as] where I’m like “his parents made him see 360 degrees around the earth.” But with the way I did it on there, [harmonizes] “360 degrees,” it’s so innocent. It feels like I wasn’t trying to be anything else other than tapped into my inner child on that one, which was really sweet.”
“Pillars is one of the most important ones for me because it’s honoring my grandmother and the life of my grandfather. It was a song for her because they were the first example of true love that I had in my life and it felt good to make a song for her. I grew up in a duplex and my grandparents lived downstairs, so every morning I would go downstairs and open the door, say good morning, open the door into their bedroom and kiss my grandma, kiss my grandpa. And It’s hard to really speak on. It’s one that’s really for me. But the gift in it is making something that’s for me that I know that the world can identify with and feel.”
“I love that song. It went through many stages in terms of the production side of it. Budgie really molded that when we brought in people that really helped bring that to fruition. And it’s another one, again, it’s like that singing. It’s not the prettiest singing, but you feel good. You feel what I’m saying. It’s one of those moments where it’s like, “Grandma, I love you so much that I’ll sing to you.” And getting out of that whole, the judgment of like, “That’s this, that’s that.” It’s like, no, that at the root of it is just love and trying to show up as my authentic self.”
“My grandmother is so funny. My favorite thing on there is, “grandma want her earrings. She’s so vain.” She’s 97, and that’s a blessing and the fact that it’s me. I’m her grandson, and she wants to get all done up when I’m there. She wants to have her jewelry on. She always says, ‘You know I’m vain.’ It’s one of the things that’s kept her going for this long. Every time I’m back home she’s just like, “you are so much your grandfather,” I’ve heard that for so long. There’s so many things about him that I think I inherently have being that I’m his blood. But a lot of observing him and how he carried himself, I think he’s the most exemplary man, and not in the way that we see men like, strong, macho. He had all of those things, but he showed so much emotional strength and emotional maturity, he had a certain poise and that almost anyone felt.”
“Look In My Eyes”
“That joint, there was a weird in-between time where Budgie was sending me beats and I was just trying new stuff. This was maybe three years ago. And I sent him that one and another joint called “Cousins Anthem.” And we were talking about towards the end of the album, the mood shifts and we wanted something that brought the energy back up, but [make sure that] the intent of what I was trying to get across emotionally was still there. And we were listening back to it and I was like, “Wow, this one is really good.” And I was like, “What happens if I just wrote another verse and just kind of structured this a little bit better?”
“But yeah, the writing process of almost all of it is the beat playing, I’m sitting in Budgie’s crib on the couch writing, say I’m ready, and I record it. I love that about this process of this album. All of it was recorded in Budgie’s crib at the time that Zeroh was there. Zeroh recorded there. Liv.e recorded there. Venna recorded there. Kelly recorded her verse out here in Brooklyn. Yeah, that one is really special.”
“It’s felt good to speak for me on that one because oftentimes when we hear that reference, it’s like, “Yeah, the look in his eyes was this.” I’m like, I’m saying for myself, look in my eyes, you see the pain that I was raised with, just feeling the pain of people I loved. A lot of that pain was, it was never really an internal thing about me, but as it pertained to the people I love, seeing the people I love go through hardships just in life and feeling for them. It’s a lot of what that pain that I was talking about on that joint is about. The verses are very much self-reflective and about my experience, but it’s in relation to feeling what I feel while simultaneously feeling what other people are feeling.”
“I love that title, man. If you think about it, literally our body is our shielding, our shadow. Metaphorically, it’s like I wasn’t allowing myself to embrace the sides of me that I didn’t like, that I couldn’t embrace my shadow side, the parts of me that I would say, “That’s just not me,” until someone really monumental to my growth once told me, “You won’t see you, you won’t feel…it was just mainly “you have to accept.” Until you accept that shadow side, you won’t see any progression within you.”
“And I knew that one was the one [to be the outro] because I’ve played it for people and they’re like, “That’s beautiful,” where my mom spoke on the introduction and the way my father speaks on the outro. I feel triumphant. If it’s a movie and we’re thinking about someone dying on the battlefield, it’s the last breaths kind of thing where there’s snow falling and it’s super peaceful when somebody’s at peace with where they’re at.”
“The main thing always for me is on each song the first things that I say. [Here,] I say, “Ain’t nothing left to say when it’s time, thinking to myself will be all right, can’t complain. Not the same as I was. What a view. All the stars gleaming light above me,” it’s like when I step back from me and I get to see everything. [Like] that analogy I was using of the painter stepping back and seeing it because when I’m up close, I’m like, “I can’t really see the full thing,” and saying like, “What a view. Wow. I really liked who I’ve become or who I’m becoming.” But it just felt like the perfect way to end it, at least for me.”