Back before the word ‘influencer’ lost its mystique and became a shorthand for self-promotion, product placement and dystopian capitalist propaganda, it evoked the effortless motions of someone making the almost unseen waves that go on to define popular style. In his role as pro-skater and Supreme lookbook model, 24-year old Sage Elsesser embodied this kind of casual influence, trendsetting the branded skater fits that have become fashion mainstays in celebrity culture, yet remaining firmly outside the spotlight. Even the attention drawn to his songwriting credit on Frank Ocean’s Blonde and close friendship with Earl Sweatshirt only served to place him amidst some of the most reclusive artists of our generation, making underground moves in the experimental rap scene led by MIKE, Sweatshirt and other collaborators, developing his own identity as Navy Blue with a slew of mixtapes and production credits that peaked with a verse on 2018's Some Rap Songs.
With his second full-length release of 2020, Song of Sage: Post Panic! only blurs the line further between Elsesser and his indigo alter-ego, revealing as much as it obscures about the figure at its centre. Set against the backdrop of colonial histories spanning continents and centuries and tapping into the looming anxieties of the present, Sage navigates these beats with one foot in the the rap game and the other in a spiritual dimension all his own.
Opener 'Dreams of a Distant Journey' sets this sublime tone through an oceanic swell of horns, as Sage stirs up deep currents of pain that lie disharmonic beneath this surface:
"Troubled son on the run
These days you never know
My father told me get a gun"
he begins, measuring out the karmic struggles and omens of his growth into the man he is today, grave in the memory of past lives and sunken slave ships. Quickly pivoting to the 21st century on 'Tired', though, a Boyz n the Hood sample leads into a washed-out beat as Sage wearily drowns out the hypocrisy of gentrification and violent news cycles. "Talking about your gun rights / they killing us for sport" he raps, dismissing fairytale images of America and its foundational myths of God, land and justice.
In the tracks that follow, mortality becomes something to confront head-on, meshing abstraction with grim reality like sunlit shadows. On the Maxo-aided 'Certainty', coiled chains and slammed gavels announce the spectre of prison alongside a cascade of tolling-bells, while 'Poderoso' sees a blazing billy woods verse split the concrete open, his words infused and suspended above ancient catacombs and woozy guitars. "Wear a mask / wash your hands / or fall victim" Sage raps on 'Memory Lane', evoking the disproportionate fatality rate of the pandemic for black and Latinx communities, while turning these fatalistic sentiments into steadfast resolution ("the death wishes don’t last.")
These moments of clarity appear amidst laidback lyrics that stay close to the chest, opaque in their imagery even to Sage himself as he encounters the mental vaults and dams that shroud his experiences of depression. On 'Self Harm', his normally resolute voice wavers and breaks before patching itself together amidst the soothed sample production, blinking through tears and smoke. His repeated intro ‘Navy Blue the truest’ doesn’t signify the amount he reveals or makes clear, but the therapeutic honestly of his expression, one which is defined by inconstancy and division— struggling with spliff as both vice and anaesthetic, life as both blessing and perpetual war. These vacillations are upheld by the lucid cadence of his flow, striding through the loneliness of the expensive roadman onwards to a velcro-closeness with friends and family, from the states across to London. On '1491' he addresses this transatlantic connection with the chorus "I used to kiss my Saint Christopher / Fuck Christopher Columbus": scornful and breezy at the same time.
It’s a lot to balance, reckoning with the legacies of generations that came before him as well as the endless issues that cloud the headlines, summed up in the line "grateful for my water source / while terribly aware of Flint", displaying the ethical multitasking of anyone born in the past few decades. "When it all boils down I’m just a vector", he figures on 'Post Panic!', gesturing to his multi-hyphenated talents as well as the longitudinal style of rap he undertakes to make sense of the continuums and constellations that engrave his psyche. The album’s second half is mellowed out by cosmic features from Yasiin Bey and Zeroh, harmonising with spaced, moonlit production as Sage eclipses the distinctions between his mind, body and soul. Through the expansive outros of these undulating tracks, Song of Sage traces the peaks and valleys of his migrations, distant horizons overlapping with the immediacy of newfound peace and day-old wisdom. The presence of his deceased father runs throughout this LP, linking Sage to his ancestors and to a heavenly kind of grief, and it’s these connections that ground him when everything around him seems uncertain. Navy Blue and Sage Elsesser may be the same person, but the out-of-body experience that comes with listening to this album feels like listening to constant metamorphoses into newer forms, old-school beats set to futuristic shades of blue.
- 8.5 -
'Tired', 'Self Harm', '1491'
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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