The Making of Navy Blue: Ways of Knowing
Navy Blue’s major label debut, Ways of Knowing, is a consistent narrative success, but musically a mixed bag.
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Sage Elsesser, the multi-talented artist known for his skateboarding and modeling skills, is making waves with his major-label debut album, Ways of Knowing (2023), released under the name Navy Blue. Having honed his craft over the past seven years, Navy Blue’s music is a unique blend of melancholic, jazz-inspired hip-hop and mellow spoken-word poetry, with poignant lyrics exploring his African heritage, dependence on cannabis, and the complexities of life. Collaborating with producer Budgie, Ways of Knowing chronicles Blue’s growth and evolution as an artist, letting go of some of the darker themes that have until now been mainstays in his work and opting to explore his growth rather than his pain.
The release of Ways of Knowing marks Blue’s return to music after completing a rehabilitation program for drug addiction. Growing up in a household where casual cannabis usage was prevalent—his Rastafarian father used it casually at home, and even blew a cloud of smoke into Blue’s face right after he was born—Blue started smoking at a young age. However, he soon realized how damaging his dependence on the drug was and made the decision to seek help.
Despite his complicated relationship with his father’s drug use, Blue’s love for his family is ever-present on Ways of Knowing. This connection is perhaps best embodied by Budgie’s production, which draws inspiration from Blue’s parents’ backgrounds as musicians. For example, Budgie integrates dub rhythms and Gospel influences in nods to the musical inspirations of Blue’s father and mother, respectively. Familial themes are also enhanced by Blue’s profound rhymes, in which he expresses his gratitude for their unconditional support, recognizing its instrumental role in his recovery. This culminates in the album’s second to last song, “Look In My Eyes,” as Blue takes a victory lap, recounting his highs and lows while celebrating his newfound sobriety. Once again, he hesitates to take credit for all he has accomplished and instead looks to his family, who gave him the courage to continue when he had none left.
The track “Life’s Terms,” featuring Los Angeles rapper and producer Zeroh, perfectly encapsulates Blue’s optimistic attitude throughout the album. Blue briefly mentions his struggles with vulnerability before shifting the focus to his ongoing recovery process, in which he is working to turn “sorrow into self-care.” The celebration of self-love is a theme that reverberates throughout the track and the entire album as Blue counteracts his self-doubt, affirming that he deserves happiness while admitting he still has a long way to go.
Blue uses his grandparents’ mortality to reflect on the fragility of his own life during his struggles with mental health. The track “Pillars” opens with a voicemail from his grandmother, who reminds him how much she loves him over the sound of muted piano and falling rain. Blue accepts the reality that his family will pass away, but instead of letting this rule over him, he takes strength in his ancestry, learning from the lives of those who came before him. In doing so, he reinvents his definition of strength, rapping “Reverse my weakness, I had to cry.” Instead of viewing crying as a sign of weakness, he lets his emotions out, which finally allows him to find the peace he had been searching for in drug use.
While “Pillars” is a thematic and narrative success, it falls short musically as Blue’s sparse rhymes struggle to fill the room left by the pared-back instrumentals. The album’s beats generally lean toward simplicity, which means Blue has nothing to fall back on when his delivery is not on point. This is most evident in “Window To The Soul,” featuring singer/rapper Kelly Moonstone. Blue’s vocals on this track are monotone and sleepy, even as he takes shots at his haters and recounts his success. On the other hand, Moonstone maintains Blue’s laid-back style and uses Budgie’s minimalist production to let her vocal talent shine. Blue struggles to demonstrate this ability in some of his verses, leaving a few of the songs feeling incomplete.
Aside from its occasional weak moments, Ways of Knowing is a sensitive yet confident window into Blue’s pain and growth. He manages to embody his musical roots, channeling the rhythms of his father and the vocals of his mother to provide insight into his pain and, most importantly, his recovery.