Pink Navel embraces playful, eccentric hip-hop on ‘Pink Pound’

Photo of Pink Navel's Pink Pound
Pink Navel and Jen Feliciano/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0 

At a mere 11 minutes, Pink Pound may at first appear to be the least ambitious entry in Pink Navel’s discography. But it may also be the queer, geeky hip-hop artist’s do-it-yourself sound at its most refined yet. 

The Maine rapper, producer and self-proclaimed “toy person” is best known as a member of the indie rap darling Ruby Yacht collective. Indeed, Navel’s off-kilter, oft-shouted verses marked them as a fan favorite on the group’s 37 Gems mixtape. But Navel’s solo work has thus far been dominated by longer concept albums, best captured on 2019’s Andre’s Gift & Omer Tower — a YouTube video essay sampling, MuseumofReddit-referencing love letter to internet culture. The latest project sees Pink Navel take their sound in a more traditionally musical direction — but Pink Pound remains anything but conventional. 

For one, Navel mostly leaves behind the spoken word samples that have been a staple of their work so far, preferring to spit flurries of dense rhymes for nearly every second of Pink Pound. Even though the unwavering delivery and playful tangents often necessitate a handful of listens, the album’s contained runtime keeps Navel’s vocal style tight and digestible, maintaining their signature surreal anecdotes in clear focus. 

Wasting no time on opening track “Deleted,” Navel roughly details their awkward entrance into an unnamed concert venue only to “clip through” the floor as producer Won Pound’s instrumental undergoes a “full-180” beat switch. It’s a vivid scene: Navel embraces a familiar immature persona, handing out toys as they go, holding their microphone like a large child, trying to emulate their idols as if they’re “Chappie watching ‘Voltron.’ ” But the skill of their delivery, punctuated by their signature shouted ad-libs, quickly proves Navel to be anything but amateurish.

As the album’s sole producer and other namesake, fellow Maine beatmaker Won Pound makes just as strong of an impression. “Intro” appropriately emulates Navel’s own production style from earlier projects; with summery square chords dancing over a tight funk baseline and an organic drum loop, the instrumental sounds like it would be at home in a particularly surreal children’s cartoon. But Won Pound brings a musical complexity to the instrumental that, alongside Pink Navel’s multisyllabic flow and wailing ad-libs, transforms the track into a sonic playground. 

The latter tracks on the album see the pair put their own spin on tried and true hip-hop ideas. One might even excavate an ethos of brag-rap bombast from underneath layers of Navel’s one-liners and cartoon references on “Two Barts” and “TV Shows.” But with lines such as, “Changing up the pace like I’m Kevin with the dodo / or Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo,” composing most of their braggadocio, Pink Navel makes no serious attempt at the “cool rapper” archetype. 

Yet there’s something similarly admirable in what little regard they have for expectations and what little inhibitions they seem to have on the mic. Later in the same track, Navel admits their cartoon reference shtick may be wearing thin, but the joyous passion with which they scream the line suggests that they pay no regard to such critiques.

This playful repurposing of hip-hop tropes comes to its peak on the self-loving “Selfie Mode,” easily the album’s standout track. Won Pound’s base-boosted, doo-wop sampling instrumental loop is akin to a Madlib beat with a sugar rush, while Navel’s verse is a nostalgic appreciation, both for their supporters as well as for their own perseverance. It’s a track that embodies the best of the rapper’s work yet: Though childish in aesthetics and rowdy in presentation, there’s a complex and joyous emotional core underneath.

That said, Navel’s complex artistic endpoint is a balancing act, and there are certain tracks on Pink Pound that are more successful than others. With Pink Navel’s demeanor and wit as a central focus, their general lack of song structure sometimes gets the better of them. “Tech Brain” and “Vader Laugh” are Pink Pound’s weakest tracks. While Navel’s verses remain on point, the lack of a defined hook and melody makes it somewhat difficult to pick out and appreciate their wordplay. 

But taken as a cohesive whole album, these issues are less relevant, and it’s hard not to appreciate the charm in Navel’s utterly incomparable and carefree take on hip-hop. All things considered, Pink Pound is the clearest rendering of it yet. 

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.