As per a long-established law, Son Raw keeps it 100% Grade A.
Authenticity in rap, we’re told, comes from a specificity of place. We want our Houston artists chopped and screwed, our LA artists throwing sets, our ATLiens to shout out Magic City and anyone from the Bronx to remind us of where this shit came from.
(Maybe not for the last one. We know.)
But while hip-hop is undoubtedly tied to blocks, hoods, cities and states, human experience is far more fluid. People move, cultures collide, and just as Hip Hop has spread across the globe, America’s rap scene has slowly but surely embraced its international side, whether Future draping himself in Haitian flags in videos or various artists embracing Latinx heritage to tap into a new audience. Gabe Nandez is a young artist whose worldview contains multitudes, but his embrace of French and Spanish on his debut album Diplomacy have less to do with grabbing Daddy Yankee’s streams than they do figuring out his place in the world.
First some biography: the child of two UN Diplomats, Gabe has lived in Haiti, Tanzania, New York, Jerusalem and Montreal, an upbringing as inspiring as it could be alienating. Diplomacy is first and foremost a tour of the angels and demons that come with such a rootless life, offering a counterpoint to the touristy approach of his peers, which treat the jetlife and accompanying cultural dalliances with all the gravitas of a costume change in a musical. The lyrics talk about homes with no electricity, but also about speaking one’s mind too much to socialize, long-distance sibling relationships in a world simultaneously isolated and increasingly interconnected, and the consequence of never having a single place to call home.
The hook to “The Return” is simultaneously a rap brag about dropping a new project and a commentary on coming back to a city after an extended absence. If countless rappers have broken down how limiting it is to live life within a few city blocks, Diplomacy argues that globalism is just as alienating.
What counteracts this rootlessness and ties the album together, is the production. After taking a step back to re-assess his priorities, Nandez took the time to learn piano and guitar, composing the album’s music himself. The results are sparse, organic tracks that pair 808 kicks to everything from understated riffs to xylophone hits, with a nocturnal mood dominating the album. “No Remorse” floats by, suspended on a guest vocal by Haute but also chopped up guitar that rides the line between lof-fi and no-fi.
Elsewhere, “I.D” hints at Afrobeat or Dancehall minus the commercial sheen, borrowing from the music Nandez might have encountered during his travels but also making those influences his own, and filtering them through a contemporary New York lens that has his production fitting neatly next to acts like MIKE or Standing on the Corner.
The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly “Grams,” an honest and unflinching look at addiction as told over a detuned, chopped and screwed guitar loop. Here again, Nandez tricks casual listeners to thinking the track is a boast – that hook is show ready and infectious – but a closer listen to the lyrics reveals a deeply distressed relationship with substance abuse, something drawn from Nandez’ real life struggles. More than anywhere else on Diplomacy, “Grams” is where it all comes together: the unique production, the sly writing and the upfront delivery.
Diplomacy is a unique rap album from a unique voice. There aren’t too many albums written from the bizarre intersection of privilege and poverty that comes with being a UN kid, and to Gabe Nandez’ credit, he’s got the self-awareness to tackle his life with the introspection it deserves. For listeners looking for new perspectives on liminal spaces, it’s a must-listen, and for rap fans who just want that heat, this is one time they’ll find it in an unexpected place.