With Godspeed: Baptism (Prelude), the first part of an album to be released in a few months, Naya Ali reminds us that good things come to those who wait.
The adage is well-known, sometimes even overused, but the Montréal rapper lives it to the fullest, with utmost sincerity in (almost) every one of her songs. Her philosophy remains unaffected by the current global crisis, even though all her promotional plans – including a record launch concert that was supposed to happen at SXSW 2020 a few days ago – have been scrapped. “We’ve re-visited the execution of our strategies. We didn’t have a choice and at this point, even next summer is up in the air. But I trust in the process. . . Je fais confiance à l’univers,” says the Anglophone Ethiopian rapper, whose spoken French has greatly improved since we last interviewed her in January of 2019.
The very existence of her new double-album is one more manifestation of those universal forces that make things happen in due course. “Initially, I wanted the album to be a single track,” Ali says, “but for reasons I’d rather keep to myself, we changed our approach. Ultimately, with everything that’s going on, it’s a good thing, because it’ll allow the album to get a second wind later in the year, when we release the second part of it.”
That will likely be in the fall of 2020, two years after the release of her first EP, Higher Self, which saw her explode onto the Québec rap scene, and one year after the deadline she set for herself for the release of her first album. “I had such a big summer out on the road!” sjhe says. “It was basically impossible to find the time to create something that had any kind of consistency. I have to admit, also, that I had a tough time finding producers, initially. Some of them ignored me or didn’t take me seriously because I was a newcomer. Now they all want to work with me…”
Others, like Chase.Wav, Kevin Figs, Benny Adam, and Banx & Ranx, had a nose for good material, and participated in the creation of this prelude to Godspeed: Baptism. “It was quite a challenge, because I’d only ever worked with one person up until now,” says Ali, referring to Kevin Dave, the producer of all six tracks on Higher Self. “He was in L.A…. and it’s really important for me to be in the physical presence of the people I work with. Getting beats over the internet is not a way to work, for me. I want to create songs from scratch, together.”
The final result is vastly more diversified than its predecessor. Without going as far as turning her back on the raw and dark trap sound for which she first became known, she uses richer melodies, and uses her voice more like a harmonic instrument than a percussive one. This is particularly true on “For Yuh,” a pop- and dancehall-tinged love song produced by Montrealers Clipz and Nomis. “It might sound surprising [coming from me], but it shows another side of me. I’m not uni-dimensional,” she insists. “It means a lot to me, because I wrote it a long time ago about someone very specific. The emotions are no longer the same, but the song still touches me, because it has evolved and is now on its own course.”
“Shea Butter” is another song with a special meaning for the young thirtysomething. The cloud-rap song is filled with light, softness, and growth, not unlike the fruit of the shea tree, which grows in her country of origin, and it required many re-writes and much re-structuring, alongside Kevin Figs. “We went through four different versions to get to this one,” says Ali. “I wanted it to sound like the musical universe of the movie Drive.”
The opposite was true for Godspeed (also produced by Figs): it came about very quickly, “just a bit more than two hours,” a sign that the rapper had a very clear idea of what the album-permeating concept of “divine speed” actually means. “It’s all about trusting the timing of things,” she explains, when asked to clarify the notion. “For years, I felt like it would take an eternity to find my own path… Right up until the day I turned 29, when I decided to turn my life around instead of staying on the safe path – meaning my studies and job in the field of marketing. I decided to focus entirely on myself instead of devoting my energy to working for other people… I chose to trust the universe, and, slowly, music became increasingly important in my life. From that point on, things fell into place at lightning speed.”
And although her ambition is very real, Ali refuses to put any kind of pressure on herself. Time needs time to do what time does. “I don’t have goals with set deadlines,” she says. “The universe will decide all of that. In the meantime, I focus on being the best artist and the best person I can be.”