N0va – Underdog – Album Review
Canada’s own y’all…back in the heezy.
N0va is back with his sixth record, released in mid-February of this year, called Underdog. According to the write-up online that comes with the record, he’s building on the momentum he started with last year’s album Checkmate…which I think might have been the only album of the set of six that we haven’t reviewed on these pages in the past. But apparently, the man did well…critics & fans diggin’ it & whatnot…now he’s battling to stay at the top of the Rap game with his brand-new record here in 2019.
Gotta admit, there’s definitely noteworthy improvement here from the last time we heard him back in 2017 on the Lessons And Blessings record – I know it’s been a while for us here, but you can certainly hear it instantly in the clarity that Underdog puts forth right away on “Showdown.” The energy and spirits of our story’s main hero are clearly up, the vibe is chill, the swagger & style is present and plenty accounted for – you’ll cruise through this opening cut quickly, but his jazzy performance on the mic has N0va sounding solid as ever and he’s clearly ready to bring the entertainment to ya. Give the man some props – he’s got an excellent first impression coming through the speakers on “Showdown” – dude sounds SLICK AF on his bars and his hooks confidently work the melody with precision – face facts, N0va’s got his professional cap on and he immediately comes out ready to rally to victory again. Underdog or not – you can hear in this first cut alone that he’s determined to find his way to the top.
“Flexin’” – I never get tired of this term, for real. It’s such a badass word and used in the proper context like this, it’s a perfect fit. I know that’s a nerdy way to put it all, but you get the idea. N0va gets into his own personal history, the struggle, the battle, the triumph – you get a ton of his story here in the lyrics, while at the same time, he’s “Flexin’” on the other emcees out there & givin’ ya a hot cut to entertain your face. Getting an incredible assist from rapper Profound as a featured guest-star on this second cut, together they flex the skills the title implies and put the verbal finesse into this track…really unique music & beat to come along with it all too – you’ll find that uniqueness & diversity in sound to be a massive asset throughout this entire record. Quite often, it’s not even due to the complexity so much as it’s all about the precision & clarity – these are smartly produced beats and I’ll be certain to give a shout-out to the entire lineup of producers on this album before we’re outta here. Profound drops killer bars onto “Flexin,’” increasing the speed of his flow as he shifts through the bars on this cut to epic proportions. In a true representation of the word’s best & most current definition, these two emcees are “Flexin’” all over the mic and music of this track and get the maximum out of every moment.
I hear the man rappin’ in the flow of a track like “Loose Screws” and my first impression is something like, ‘daaaaaaaaamn…this homeboy has really come into his own’ – this is a perfect representation of N0va at his best here. When he puts the character, energy, and swagger into the mic like this, you can absolutely feel the words come alive with his personality…it makes all the difference in the world. N0va’s always been good, don’t get me wrong…but you can absolutely hear he’s taken his skills to the next-level with the tight flow he lays down on the bars of “Loose Screws” – not a single inch of dead-space on this tune or anywhere that you can hear the man holding back…he’s right into this. Musically, it’s probably one of my favorites on the record if not my favorite altogether – that slight infusion of jazzy sound into the music pairs perfect with that signature swag in N0va’s vocals. Using the sound of this song to his advantage, you can hear him right at home on “Loose Screws” and switching between intensely focused bars and just straight-up singing it out loud & proud throughout the hooks. Does it all connect from thought to thought thematically? Homies I don’t know! But I don’t think it matters either – I think “Loose Screws” represents that scattered-thought setting and allows N0va to take us through a wordsmith’s journey syllable after syllable, keeping us completely entertained by how well he weaves words together.
“Rodeo” is straight-up pimp-smooth. What a cut! N0va demonstrates what a sharp wordsmith he can be when he’s at his most focused lyrically – he’s crushin’ it here. Listen to this flow! Fluid like water, full of his signature swagger, killer hooks, and as tight to the metering as you could hope to hear; he’s confidently pushing off all the right dynamics of the music to make a serious impact on the m-i-c. Excellent low-end to this cut, hooks that are memorable…it might be on the shorter side of a single, but it’s a single-worthy tune for sure. “Rodeo” shines a bright light on N0va’s sense of humor just as much as it does on his skills overall…whether he’s comin’ at ya serious or with a few jokes along the way, his commitment to these songs on Underdog never wavers. And that bass-line right? How can you resist the way the music rolls through this cut? You can’t! Nor should you even try. Turn this up and let this track spin its magic for ya – N0va’s focus is impeccable here – he’s completely found the right energy for each part of this song as it flows, switching it up whenever required to make each moment really stand out for all the right reasons.
Rap/Hip-Hop records have to have one ingredient – you can have a signature sound, but you still gotta switch up the flow – and I think if there’s one thing perhaps above all others that I’ve really noticed this time around, it’s just how willing N0va’s been to switch up his game and really find something that completely suits the song & music he’s working with. Like I said, he’s always been good at what he does – this is a ‘bigger, better, faster, more’ version of what you love with noticeable improvements in just about every department you can examine from the production to performances. It’s awesome to hear him come out with such confidence and personality like you’ll find on “Sick And Tired” – it’s tracks like this one that really show you the evolution that’s taken place in N0va over the years to what it is now. When he’s this into it, you can hear that born entertainer and showman that makes him more of a threat than your average emcee – people will latch onto the vibe of his natural personality just as much as they will the hooks and catchy low-end rhythm on “Sick And Tired.” N0va’s crushing this cut, ain’t no doubt about it…he’s “been working like a dog” and he’s “Sick And Tired” of givin’ up that paper instead of being able to keep all that he’s earnin’ to himself. Word to that homie – I hear ya. We all do I’m sure.
In response to that, “Goodfella” has the man chasin’ paper-stacks and stakin’ his claim out there in the music-scene. He “gets a lot of digits” he’s “just tryin’ to add the commas on” – and if he keeps the quality of his game up like he does throughout Underdog, he’ll probably start doin’ that with ease soon enough. Another highly-enticing sound & beat that sets the stage perfectly for the man, who uses every punch of the music to make his mark a permanent one on “Goodfella” – N0va gets gangster on this one, right up to the inclusion of an infamous Joe Pesci sample straight from the movie Goodfellas in the mix too. If anything, I’d venture a guess that having this in there is a strong hint that you wanna stay on N0va’s side y’all…and that he could flip the script at any time to go from the funny man to the straight-up serious. Stay in your lane homies…don’t go pushing N0va too far or you just might find out how not funny he can be if the situation calls for it and it’s time to get LOUD…I know I’m not gonna cross him. No doubt that it’s the deepest dive into a serious vibe that we’ve experienced on the record so far, but through the incredible beat & music fueled by the violin sample, combined with the endless stream of words from the star of the show, “Goodfella” is a killer cut with savagely serious atmosphere pouring out the speakers. Loved how it ends with just the Goodfellas sample too…again, it stands out.
“N0va’s Ark” will carry ya through the verbal sea of words this emcee will throw at ya on “Who You Kidding?” – he weaves through a ton of thoughts that dive into what the scene is/isn’t all about, while also givin’ ya tour from behind the scenes to the front of the stage & into the spotlight in this tale. He rips through a ton of pop-culture references here, he goes after outlandish fashion styles, lampoons weak-skills and basically tears non-confident, irrelevant & clueless emcees a new asshole here. Solid cut – I have no beef with “Who You Kidding?” and I think when you really get into this one and what’s being said you’ll find N0va’s firing off several layers deep in what he’s laying down on the mic here – but…something also tells me that this cut might have a harder time standing out than some of the rest surrounding it. He’s kind of got a Tag Team-like flow rolling through the verses of “Who You Kidding?” but not to the point where you feel like he’s going to shout “Whoomp, there it is!” – the overall vibe is different than that, but you’ll hear similarities in the speed & bounce of the words at times. Best moments are when N0va’s asking “Who you kidding bruh?” – but it’s gotta have that ‘bruh’ part attached to it or I didn’t quite feel the same way about the line…it just added that extra like…genuine glimpse into this emcee’s personality that seemed to really hit the mark for me every time it came up.
When he puts that extra jazz in his flow…that added personality…you can really hear it. A track like “Last Laugh” has N0va rappin’ stylistically smooth, gliding over the bars like the professional he’s truly become. From the hooks of the chorus to the killer flow you’ll find in the verses of “Last Laugh” – he keeps this cut movin’ & groovin’ – and like so many of the cuts, if not all of’em, you’ll hear he’s got an absolutely wicked beat & music to work with yet again. “Last Laugh” isn’t really even that involved or complex when it comes to the music – it’s just done perfectly; it doesn’t need a whole bunch of bells & whistles – it’s got everything you need. Most importantly, it’s a track where you’ll really notice how much of a key role N0va can play in the rhythm & melody of a tune as well – it’s the symbiotic relationship that gets established between the music & vocals of “Last Laugh” that makes it work so well. “Throwing gram bags off the stage now” – what? This dude’s only like four or five hours away from where we’re at here in Ottawa over there in Toronto…if this is what’s goin’ down at the shows he’s playin,’ then I gotta find myself a path to the front of the stage! This is straight-up smoothness from the beginning to end – “Last Laugh” has a wicked bass-rhythm & groove and remarkable hooks in the vocals that completely make this whole cut come alive from the lefts to the rights. He’s prowlin’ here ladies.
“Taking Me Down” puts N0va’s fighting spirit front and center. Laying out a verbal promise that there ain’t no one with the skills or power to take him out – he’s determined, committed, focused, hungry – all the right things that an emcee should be yo. I would imagine…that if I was an emcee out there in the scene right now and I heard this record, I’d definitely be keeping N0va on my radar. Keep in mind, N0va’s got most emcees in his rearview mirror at this point – that’s how far he’s surging forward. “Taking Me Down” dives deep into a mysterious sound, filling the atmosphere with a hint of added tension, drama, and danger – and to add to that, N0va creates lyrics that work perfectly with it all. At the end of the day, we all gotta make it on our own – there’s gonna be a ton of obstacles in the way and people too, some that even think they’re trying to help in the process as well with good intentions, but others that are determined to hold you back as you make your way. You can rely on exactly ONE person when the chips are down – and that’s you – N0va speaks to that strongly on “Taking Me Down.”
On his “petty shit” for “Know What I Want” – he’s here to “settle the score.” Everyone’s gotta vent a lil’ bit right? I’ll say this…I think N0va’s made it to track ten without a hiccup in this record’s accessibility – I have no doubt that people will dig what he’s laid down on Underdog. “Know What I Want” gets points for creativity and the vast majority is as accessible as the rest…the moments where the beat seems to melt right out of your speakers…maybe a bit jarring to experience after how literally everything else we’ve heard has come out so smooth the entire distance through this record. But big deal – I mean we’re talking mere moments and a few seconds of potential awkwardness on one song for a couple listeners out there when the rest is completely ready to be absorbed by ears without hesitation. Personally, I really dig that kind of switch in sound…though I’ll admit, it’s really the only moment you’ll find on this entire record that has that kind of oddness to it, the rest is completely smooth sailing the entire time. Adds character to the music and to the record though…for some people out there, that’s exactly the kind of transition that’ll reignite their interest or at least wake’em up a bit more to make sure that it’s the music gettin’ strange on its own and not them just trippin’ balls on a wild Friday night.
“Earth Wind And Fire” is another excellent example of N0va using the music to his advantage, moving with the sway of the beat & adding that jazzy flair to his vocals. He’ll even switch it up entirely and add some effects to his voice for what I think is the first time on this record at the end of this tune…which actually makes you pause & think for a moment just in hearing this part of the song. N0va’s a seriously unfiltered emcee; not only will he tell you exactly what’s on his mind time after time, but he usually keeps the sound of his voice clear and straight-ahead…what you’d hear on a record is exactly what I imagine you’d hear from him on the mic live. Great snap to the beat and color in the music, “Earth Wind And Fire” has real life in its veins and N0va spits this track with equal charisma. Another track that might have to fight for attention a bit harder than the rest on the record surrounding it, but that’s just due to its laidback vibe and continual flow – N0va’s got his foot on the pedal here and keeps the words comin’ at ya quickly until he switches it up entirely at the end into the auto-tuned vocals. All-around, I’ve certainly got no complaints – “Earth Wind And Fire” is the kind of cut that would easily stand-out on pretty much any other record he’s done – just so happens every song on this album is exceptional. So blame him for me feeling like this one tune will have to battle more for you attention – it’s his own fault.
Title-track in the house…love the beginning to “Underdog” and the piano/sample combo it has. I’ve had my issues with title-tracks in the past…most of’em out there are the toughest tracks to really ‘get right’ – they’re the centerpiece of the record and you want’em to sound that way. Often the pressure of the weight of that holds artists/bands back from having their vision reach its true potential, but the opposite can be just as true. When you get it right…when you really find a way to get your most important and album-defining cut to come out sounding like it’s the leader of the entire pack or inspiration for the set – it sounds much more like what you’ll find on “Underdog.” The piano-led melody that floats to the surface of this cut is perfection, especially when the distant saxophone sound comes in to support it – and between the beat of the drums and bounce of N0va’s bars – everything you’ll hear from this tune is extremely enticing and it never lets up. This will get the people’s attention though, no question – “Underdog” puts N0va’s signature slickness & jazzy flow right into the spotlight and the brightness in the beat & bounce of this song is pretty much guaranteed to be a highlight for many listeners out there. As it should be! The man’s done an excellent job of making the title-track the memorable moment it’s supposed to be on a record.
Ending the album with “Bodied (Warm It Up Remix),” N0va hasn’t dropped the mic just yet and he’s still head-up ready to verbally battle his way to the top of your playlists one last time. Love the crisp beat he’s working with…the sound of this track is SLICK, and you get a matching slickness on the m-i-c to go along with it, N0va keeps the vibe loose and the lyrics tight on “Bodied (Warm It Up Remix).” Definitely the kind of vibe you can feel – make no mistake, the main star of the show will remain that way, but give full props to this last track really having the right ingredients once again when it comes to the music. Just the right amount of ice-like melody on the surface to latch onto, and that beat…that BEAT…it just can’t beat denied…you can hear N0va’s feelin’ it & I’m certainly willing to bet that you will be too. Put it to you this way – I think “Bodied (Warm It Up Remix)” is in the right spot…it’s a bit looser in its overall vibe, and in a way, comes as a bit of an afterthought post-hearing “Underdog” right beforehand – but with it being the only dedicated ‘remix’ on the entire album, I think it’ll find acceptance here too. It’s cohesive enough with this set to get away with it being like a bonus tune for us and still feel like it fits – essentially if you’ve enjoyed the Underdog record to this point you’ll have no problem with one more tune. Plus the fun N0va’s clearly having at the end here is also a good note to go out on – he’s got serious skills and that’s all that needs to be there. At the end of the day, he can say whatever the fuck he wants to as long as he can back it up, which he’s shown all throughout this record that he totally can.
As I promised – shout-outs to the producers of Underdog, which includes: C’mar, Emani, BLK, False Ego, CRCL, Ocean, Zag, Yung Tago, PaysrTV, Syndrome, Homage – they’ve done a killer job on this record and created cuts that have really brought out the best of this emcee in ways I haven’t heard before. N0va’s clearly inspired and ready to take over 2019…it’s awesome to hear him at the top of his game here – but it goes further beyond that…he’s not just great on Underdog, he’s also really got a record full of cuts & material that the people out there will seriously want to bump & savagely turn up at every opportunity.
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