Album Review: Navy Blue – Ways of Knowing

[Def Jam; 2023]

After having a banner year in 2021, Sage Elsesser, better known to the world as Navy Blue, secluded himself to work on his next big career step – signing to a major label. His first three albums arrived via Freedom Sounds, but now, in 2023 Navy Blue can call himself a Def Jam signee with the release of his fourth record Ways of Knowing.

Signing to Def Jam is… a surprise. The Rick Rubin founded label is owned by Universal, and has a long history filled with ups and downs, purchases and near-foldings, and has showcased a range of iconic talents from Public Enemy and Jay-Z in the 90s, and in the 2000s made Rihanna and Kanye West household names. But a string of public mishaps, namely the excommunication of the aforementioned West’s label GOOD Music, the untimely passing of Def Jam pillar DMX, and a revolving door of chairpeople in the 2020s (including renowned Slim Shady manager Paul Rosenberg) all spelled trouble for the label.

However, it remains a landmark label. To say that Elsesser is in good company would be the understatement of the year. Def Jam is the top of the pile when it comes to rap labels, and the Navy Blue project can now flourish in ways never before dreamt of. This is evident right away on Ways of Knowing, but the core characteristics of Navy Blue remain fully intact despite the inflated budget.

Elsesser is multi-talented. He’s an artist in every sense of the word – he can write music, he’s a visual artist, he produces, he models, he even skateboards. He possesses a friends list that would make anyone jealous – Earl Sweatshirt, billy woods, Wiki, Babeheaven, Ka,The Alchemist, MIKE, Mach-Hommy, AKAI SOLO, and even Frank Ocean. With such a rich social circle though, it’s still surprising how little Elsesser shares with his collaborators thematically.

On last year’s brief but dizzying Sick!, Earl Sweatshirt tackled the post-pandemic life, while Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers approached controversial topics a la carte style with duplicitous takes on transgender individuals, child molestation, and of course the pandemic (among other things). Meanwhile, billy woods’ spectacular double-header of Aethiopes and Church took an aerial shot of history and drug culture, with the rapper’s signature heavy anthological references opening eyes and ears everywhere. All of this darkness – albeit necessary darkness – makes for a crowded pool. Each tackles their subjects with pristine discourse, but at the end of the day these records leave the audience feeling defeated by the insurmountable aggressions of society.

That’s not the case with Navy Blue. Throughout his career Elsesser has maintained a permeating consistency that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s no doubt necessary to combat the heavier themes his fellow rappers employ – the range of song titles on Ways of Knowing is proof this is a different kind of rap record: “Window to the Soul”, “To Fall in Love,” etc.

Visually speaking, Ways of Knowing is instantly a new direction for Navy Blue, given the Polaroid that adorns the album. A young Elsesser sits on his grandfather’s lap gazing at the big smile above. Previous art showed turmoil (Songs of Sage) or modern complacency (Navy’s Reprise), but Ways of Knowing purposely wants to pull us in to a different kind of record – one that attempts and succeeds at being the most uplifting rap record in recent memory.

Joining forces with London producer Budgie for the entire endeavor, Elsesser continues toying with jazz inflections and keeps his tone restrained, spending the majority of the album’s 37 minutes recounting the family he loves and feels inspired by daily. On the first single “Chosen,” Elsesser cuts to the case “I can’t stop from lovin’ me,” setting the stage for Ways of Knowing’s tunnel vision.

It’s rare to hear confidence in such a simple statement that doesn’t sound like boastful bravado or arrogance. Throughout, Elsesser puts his happiness simply and eloquently. Every Navy Blue album has assisted in piecing together what we know about the man behind the mic, and “The One” is one of the rawest moments yet. Here, Navy delves into his longest loving relationship, but instead of screaming into the void of depression and longing, he handles it with respect, “I was missing for some months / I was swimming with my love / It Vietnam, my god sent her from above / I wear the love I got for her.”

Budgie’s production keeps consistent with Navy Blue’s soft vocals, there are no “bangers” on Way of Knowing; if anything this is leans more towards being a chill R&B record than most modern hip hop or rap. “Life’s Terms” is dreamlike as Budgie shows off his love for classic soul, weaving the honey-dripping verses of Navy Blue and his guest Zeroh, making for a sexy but not sex-driven cut.

Ways of Knowing isn’t just a big love-fest though, there’s conviction and pain in Navy’s verses everywhere, but he handles them maturely instead of erratically. He’s not angry about his pain, he’s moving through it, and looking to those who helped him find more strength – most notably on “Pillars”, an ode to his grandparents. Matriarchs play a big role in rap, and whether it be Donda West or Earl Sweatshirt’s mother Cheryl Harris, the role that these women play is paramount to shaping the style of these adult men tackling their feelings through music. While “Pillars” skips a generation and goes right to Elsesser’s grandmother, it still paints a very true picture of that relationship. The song connects the whole album together, deftly introducing the thread of family love that began with Elsesser’s grandfather and grandmother’s long relationship.

The Liv.e assisted “Embers” continues on this theme, the lovely piano a perfect backdrop to heartfelt confessions from Elsesser, “I miss my Mama, Grandma, and Pa so much / I see ‘em in my dreams every single night”. It’s a brief but powerful moment of vulnerability that stands a reminder of how passionate Navy Blue is as a rapper and person. These moments run aplenty all over Ways of Knowing, and Navy’s considerate approach to his craft is a breath of fresh air, presenting light beams through dark clouds and proving that in this chaotic world that illumination can always be found in the ones you love.