Album of the Week: Naeem ― Startisha

Album of the Week returns with a look at Naeem Juwan's sterling 'Startisha.'
By    June 18, 2020

Will Schube’s got game girl, it comes easy.

On the surface, Spank Rock’s music scanned as unapologetically horny rap for late 00s hipsters, but Naeem Juwan’s project was actually always about all the ways subversion could infiltrate and upset normal rap traditions. Think about the career Spank Rock had over the course of a very long decade. Yoyoyoyoyo was booty shaking rap to the highest degree, always looking for a party and a direct descendant of 2 Live Crew. Club rap diehards appreciated his progressive and bass-heavy approach to dance rap, while neon ravers became fans through collaborations with XXXChange, Boys Noize, and Benny Blanco. In 2006, Spank Rock was one of the only rappers who could be at Coachella one weekend and Magic City the next. He was unable to sustain the momentum, though, and his 2011 followup, Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar got lost in the wave of the new decade.

Spank Rock’s always been an outstanding rapper. It’s easy to categorize him within a specific framework of rap, because so much of his early output was aggressively confrontational in what it was trying to accomplish, but his rhyme schemes and ability to shift POVs are both elite. He proves this on Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar, but he also moves further than ever from the sound he first started out with. He sampled CAN before the CAN-aissance began. “Car Song” is a reminder of just how good Santigold was and still is. The album faded into oblivion, but now, on the heels of Spank Rock’s reinvention as Naeem, that overlooked album served as a roadmap for where the artist is now on his new, genreless LP.

It took three listens and a clarifying press email before I realized Naeem was Spank Rock was Naeem Juwan. Sure, the Amanda Blank feature should have been a tell, but the sounds he’s working with here are so far from the Spank Rock of Yoyoyoyoyo. Reinvention isn’t a feat on its own, but when an artist reemerges entirely new, and the direction is confident, assured, and thoroughly magnetic, the metamorphosis is worth applauding.

Juwan’s musicianship is on full display throughout the LP, and his mastery of newly embraced aesthetics give the album a glow. He moves from singing to rapping to something in-between throughout the record, letting the subtle variables within his production serve as a guiding light. Whereas Spank Rock was often about trying to get as vulgar as possible, Naeem’s Startisha builds from minimalism and dance-heavy grooves. There’s even a song that sounds like Burial born in Baltimore.

The album opens with “You and I,” a Silver Apples song which the singer turns into a tender ballad. Naeem’s beautiful and scratchy voice introduces the record immediately, as he’s front and center throughout. Production is handled by a team of collaborators, including Ryan Olson from Gayngs, and on the track Juwan yearns for the big moments that sometimes get excluded from the day-to-day minutiae of a growing relationship. “Stimulation” features both Justin Vernon and Swamp Dogg, and Juwan does an admirable job of using their unique voices as textural accents rather than as front-and-center guests. He raps, “Love to all polyamorous/ Except for the glamorous/ No ice on our wrist, we eat the rich/ Brain so good, I flip the whip/ So I set sail, sea of semiotics.” Naeem Juwan, welcome to the resistance.

“Let Us Rave” features Velvet Negroni and returns to the upbeat dance rap Juwan first gained success with. The album’s centerpiece is its penultimate track, “Startisha,” a lovely and slow-moving dance song that centers around Naeem’s vocals. He sings, “Sometimes when I have time/ I think of you and I wonder/ Do you still move this way?” It’s a different side of the MC turned singing polymath, and on the track, like on all of Startisha, he handles the left-turn with grace and in a way that never seems forced. It’s a reinvention, but thinking of Naeem in terms of Spank Rock does the new project no favors. This is by a different body of work by a different artist. The trace remnants remain, but this new project is an entirely new novel in Naeem Juwan’s fascinating career.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!