When NAV announced in January he was retiring from music in an act of solidarity with friend Lil Uzi Vert, it was hard not to roll your eyes. Rappers using retirement as a marketing strategy is hardly anything new, but seeing NAV do it felt especially corny — the 29-year-old’s only studio album, Reckless, was instantly forgettable; no where near the level of an artist who has earned the right to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
As expected, the retirement talk was just a gimmick to generate buzz for a second studio album, Bad Habits, but the music here is so empty you wonder whether NAV would’ve been better off staying away altogether. On opener “To My Grave,” he does his best Travis Scott impression, balancing a laid back autotune-driven falsetto with a spaced out trap concoction. But the lyrics, which include the soulless boast “My watch costs more than a brick,” lack any real individuality; a persistent problem that makes this record’s 50-minute length a real slog to sit through.
Bad Habits is the sound of an artist terrified to step outside of their comfort zone, with NAV happy to recycle the same simplistic flow to the same bass-heavy, chilled elevator music over and over. This means it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between songs, with tracks like “Taking Chances” and “Tension” alarmingly similar in their execution. When artists like Future and Scott, both of whom are clearly reference points for NAV, rap about the trappings of living the good life, they do so with a playful self-awareness, with their boasts about women usually juxtaposed with inner feelings of dread. NAV, however, raps about money, drugs, and women with all the depth of a kiddie pool.
Executive produced by The Weeknd, Bad Habits has an admirable level of pop polish and will have no problem getting radio spins. “Price On My Head” is deliriously catchy and sees guest The Weeknd, who (probably) throws subliminal shots at Drake and jokes about getting head in exchange for a Fendi makeup bag, back to his cheeky best. But NAV shows no boldness with his verse and almost seems happy to be upstaged by his XO label boss. He’s laid back to the point of not caring, an attitude which means that even if his music sticks in your head momentarily, it won’t endure, as there simply isn’t enough here beyond the most surface level kind of flossing.
Rather worryingly, this record is also littered with lazy misogyny. On “Tussin,” where frenetic guest star Young Thug makes NAV look completely ordinary, the latter boasts: “I bought my side bitch a watch.” On “Know Me,” NAV spits “Bad bitch freaky, I grab that bitch by her throat.” On both of these tracks, you’re waiting for a clever punchline to arrive in the next bar and push this material forward or to at least provide some ironic wit, but unfortunately it never comes. “Vicodin,” a ham fisted attempt at storytelling, is also alarmingly regressive in its attitude towards women. NAV raps about a stripper with a pill habit, praising her for holding down two other jobs while looking after her kids. But rather than holding up this fictional woman’s perseverance and strength, he simply says this means “she deserves everything I give” – a lazy backwards message that suggests hard working women need a powerful patriarchal man to truly prosper.
Perhaps the closest NAV comes to pushing artistic boundaries is on “Why You Crying Mama,” a gentle piece of introspection dedicated to his mother. Yet all he really tells us about his mother is the fact he’s now able to buy her endless presents because he’s, well, rich. This feels like a missed opportunity, with NAV unable to muster up any heartfelt emotional storytelling or give us a sense of what his mother might have sacrificed. Perhaps he should study 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” or Kanye West’s “Hey Mama” more closely next time.
With Bad Habits, it would have been cool to find out more about who NAV is or hear music that pushed the boundaries a little, but I’m not sure if he’s even wired in a way to understand that growth is important and is too preoccupied with enjoying the “side bitches” while he still can. At the moment, music feels like a means to an end for NAV, who desperately needs to grow as a lyricist if he’s to achieve any kind of longevity in hip-hop.