You know where Will Hagle be, play the crib until the cash talk.
After four albums developing in black-and-white, Nolan the Ninja has burst into color. The 26-year-old Detroit MC sharpened his sound in his home city’s underground, both as a crate-digging producer and a quick-rapping, passionate, technically adept MC. On DJ Soko’s Left of Center imprint, he did what his one-hit wonder contemporaries fail to do: explore, take chances, flounder, fail, and improve. With Sportee, his first LP on Mello Music Group, Nolan the Ninja has settled into a sound that both works for him and meshes well with the new label’s aesthetic. By leaning into sounds of the past, Nolan the Ninja may have carved himself a better possible future.
Nolan the Ninja’s career started behind the boards, with 2015’s 30-min jazz-favoring instrumental album lo-fi l∞ps. A year later, he gripped a mic with one hand and flipped off the camera with the other, on the respective covers of two bar-filled LPs entitled He(Art) and F*ck the Hype. Whereas those albums contained scratchy and aggressive raps that didn’t quite match the laid-back tone of the tracks, 2017’s Yen found the MC chipping away at his less impressive habits, toning down his anger, and finding new rhythms.
On Sportee, Nolan has finally found a balance. He’s figured out how to work his difficult-to-tame rap style into calm, explorative boom-bap beats that could easily be looped into 3-hour study/relaxation videos. He raps in sputtering sixteenth notes without resorting, as he used to, to half-screams.
Although the style is a significant step forward for Nolan himself, Sportee could be perceived a backwards-looking LP. In order to find what works for him, Nolan leaned into his obvious 90s influences. The album begins with a scratched sample of “C.R.E.A.M.”’s “Let’s start it like this, son.” Nas, Nolan’s self-proclaimed “favorite rapper,” appears briefly in another scratched sample on “Sp1200 Freestyle.” Nolan also utters the words “It was written” at least three times. He even apologizes for his tendencies briefly on “Paloma,” rapping, “Pardon me if I’m being nostalgic.”
Despite favoring an older sound, Nolan isn’t dogmatic about returning hip-hop to any idealized era. Yet Sportee still runs the risk of being branded “nostalgic.” That term, while endearing to some, tends to prove derogatory when it comes to rap. It took Joey Bada$$ years to orient himself in the present moment. Action Bronson had to reveal the full-depth of his thoroughly modern character through videos and other means in order to circumnavigate the Ghostface comparisons. Nolan the Ninja, like them, shares a proclivity to make music that might have made more sense when things were different. That could scare away people who, as well all tend to do, overfavor freshness.
All it takes to dismiss that understandable perception of Sportee as old-fashioned is to watch the video for “Oranges,” the LP’s Jaye Prime-featuring lead single. The video is upbeat and colorful. Nolan dances awkwardly in front of various green screened locations while wearing an orange costume. The production team made subtle, strange choices in an attempt to differentiate Nolan, on a song he wrote about how different he is. He’s a funny, charismatic young MC in 2019. He just happens to rap clearly, quickly, and well, and Sportee happened to borrow the best elements from LPs made when rapping well was a requirement.
Considering Nolan has already made such strong strides since 2015, there’s a chance that this LP, too, could be just another blip in his overall progression. Perhaps, in the future, Sportee will be remembered as a dip into the past, a necessary step backwards that helped nudge Nolan along to whatever style he ultimately settles upon.
On tracks 16 through 21 of Sportee, possibly tagged on Bandcamp as “(BONUS)” for a reason, Nolan hints at other directions his flow could take. The tracks are like a cool down period after 15 breathless, bar-heavy songs. Nolan slows down even more, crafting a clear and welcome tone shift to close the album. At the start of Sportee, he requests the producer to turn up his headphones and shrieks the album’s title. By closing track “Felt,” he asks the producer to turn them down and barely mumbles out another adlib.
Either through intentional shaping or some incidental conflation in his mind, Nolan the Ninja sounds significantly mellower with Mello Music Group. He’s trimmed the excess parts from his flow, packing a lot in while keeping it all clear. He’s put together a series of songs that make sense alongside each other. The 90s throwback elements pervasive throughout Sportee might distract from the quality of the beats and bars, but they simultaneously have pushed Nolan the Ninja forward, from black-and-white to undeniable brilliance.