In a recent interview with the New York Times, Naeem Juwan (previously known as Spank Rock, now going by the mononym Naeem) claimed his latest album, Startisha, took almost five years to make. The amount of time, dedication, and care poured into this album is immediately evident: every song, verse, and bar is expertly crafted.
As Spank Rock, Juwan's first two albums, 2006's YoYoYoYoYo and 2015's Everything Is Boring & Everyone Is A Fucking Liar, are made up of dozens of queer, club–ready anthems rooted in the Baltimore scene, dealing with love, sex, and gay pride. Take Everything Is Boring's "Nasty (feat. Big Freedia)" for example: as the beat manically builds and drops, Big Freedia enters the track by repeating "Pussy pop / pussy pop pop pop pop." Even though he's changed his moniker—and his sonic signature is no longer rooted primarily in ballroom/house music—Naeem's music is still deeply and unapologetically queer, though certainly more formless and oblique.
Even 15 years ago, Juwan's music defied definition. "Critique my music / Call it pop/rap/rock/funk/fusion," he defiantly raps on YoYoYoYoYo's "Bump." As Naeem, across each of Startisha's nine tracks, he still resists the trappings of common genre conventions, though he paints with a more diverse sonic palette. Smooth R&B toplines are supported by pulse–pounding, EDM–tinged production; pop hooks melt into chaotic ballroom/house bangers as often as they adhere to a more traditional structure; rap verses veer between precise, rapid–fire spits and off–kilter, polyrhythmic drum fills. Each track carefully balances minimalist and maximalist aesthetics, showcasing a masterful blend of quirky, progressive electronic elements and frenetic hip–hop beats.
Startisha's fourth track, "Woo Woo Woo (feat. Amanda Blank & Micah James)" is certainly the clearest nod to his old brand of music; and, as a result, is one of the more eccentric tracks on Startisha. It opens with an innocent bass line that quickly turns to unhinged debauchery, functioning as a sort of posse cut as Blank, James, and Naeem trade double entendres ("I blow up like tik tik tik / Y'all bitches suck like dick dick dick"), expressions of queerness ("These folks still afraid of gay shit / I'll suck dick and you still won't say shit), and outlandishly hilarious flexes ("I got dudes on top of dues / Kim K selfish, Kim K nudes").
"Let Us Rave (feat. Velvet Negroni)" similarly expands upon terrain covered in the Spank Rock years. Naeem puts on a masterclass in building an explosive club tune with just a singular melodic motif and a few drum and sampler tracks. Naeem and Velvet Negroni spit over a menacing synth line that shakily creeps up and down a keyboard. "Acid is on the agenda," they rap, as a distant police siren is chopped and screwed. "They should just let us rave," the rappers growl in response.
Conversely, Startisha's lead single, "Simulation," shows a complex, deeply beautiful side of Naeem not displayed in his previous career. He still delivers a series of solid, punchy verses, but the jazzy, electronic, neo–soul production elevates the track to one of Startisha's highlights. Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon is credited as contributing to the piano lines, but the influence from other Bon Iver collaborators, especially those featured on their latest album, i,i, are obvious. The track "Naeem" off i,i was named for Naeem; the 39–year–old rapper has been working with Gayngs, the musical collective which helped Bon Iver create i,i.
In fact, the majority of the tracks on Startisha display Naeem covering entirely new ground. "Us," features a chill, laid–back beat, with Naeem singing a head–bopping hook before a simmering beat switches turns the track into a hardened rap track about drug abuse. "You & I," the opening track, is a cover of Silver Apples' 1961 cult classic. While the original is creepy, almost nauseating, with a lurching, high–pitched saw buzzing through the mix, Naeem's version feels inquisitive and warmly psychedelic.
The record's final single, "Stone Harbor," features a synth brass flourish underscoring a love poem to the artist's boyfriend: "Every word I read / I think of you / Every song I hear / I think of you / Every love I have / I think of you." The closing track, "Tiger Song," heralded by Justin Vernon as his "favorite rap. Ever," deals with Naeem's intimate grapple with self–discovery. In a recent interview, Naeem described the songwriting process in similar terms: "As someone growing up in a society that always put militant and physical strength to the forefront, and not being a strong, tough fighter, how do you give value to yourself?"
The clear stand–out of this excellent album is the title track, "Startisha." Presented as a bittersweet ode to youth through the medium of a long–lost childhood friend, "Startisha" demonstrates Naeem's utter mastery in developing emotive, complex electronic music. At times, drum samples echo and fade into empty space like disappearing memories. Then, rumbling bass patterns combine with rain samples to create sonic environments which feel real, like I can look up from my computer and see a gentle summer storm rolling in. Gorgeous trumpet fanfares later herald in the sun, as the storm clouds disappear.
Though Spank Rock has been a significant producer in the Philly and Baltimore club scenes for years, his new music as Naeem is both move to the side and a step forward. Startisha is an album that exists in multitudes: it's simultaneously a rap album, an electronic album, and an undefinable album. The connective thread here is Naeem, emerging from a long hiatus with a new name and a new fondness for introspective, beautiful, and banging music.