The wait for RL Grime’s second album NOVA began as soon as his first album, VOID, dropped. The widely recognized king of trap has always been about more than just his namesake, as he’s explored dubstep, future bass, and even drum & bass in many of his productions. But NOVA is truly peak RL, as the 27-year-old producer ventures into new sounds and personal expressions, many of which we’ve never heard from him before.
To say that VOID and NOVA are like night and day, respectively, isn’t an exaggeration. VOID carried with it an exceedingly dark undertone, exemplified in some of its bigger tracks like “Core” and “Scylla.” In contrast, NOVA is a brighter, purer expression of happiness if we’ve ever seen one.
There are also pretty clear-cut divisions within NOVA that are worth mentioning now before we start: “Feel Free” and “Shrine” are both incredibly powerful and bright tracks that delve into some of RL Grime’s more technical productions. This then transitions into a series of features, many from rappers, with Miguel & Julia Michaels, Jeremih & Tony Lanez, Ty Dolla $ign & TK Kravitz, and Joji & Chief Keef. From here, we move into one of the best four-track sections of any album I’ve heard before or since: “Shoulda,” “Reims,” “Pressure,” and “Era.” These are all pure production, and pure show-off status for RL. Following a brief interlude, we make our way into the final resolution of the album. These final four tracks are generally on the poppier side, especially with the Daya collaboration “I Wanna Know” and “UCLA” with 24hrs, which will undoubtedly become an anthem at the school.
But let’s break it down even further…
The album starts off with “Feel Free,” which feels to us like a statement from RL translating to, “Yeah, I still make heavy trap. But look at this other shit I can do.” It begins with an anthemic vocal loop and melody that quickly transitions into a mind-melting trap drop that immediately reminds us why we love him.
NOVA quickly switches gears from the bass-heavy trap of “Feel Free” into the brilliantly beautiful “Shrine” with Freya Ridings. As someone who first discovered dance music in drum & bass, I can confidently say that this is one of the finer DnB tunes that I’ve heard so far in 2018. RL Grime isn’t afraid to break boundaries in a genre that is so often territorial and rigid because he’s never been strictly in that community – he’s just making what he loves. “Shrine” is incredible in its inherent emotionality and Ridings is easily one of the more impressive vocalists we’ve heard, despite having never featured on a dance music track before.
At this point, RL brings in a host of featured vocalists to truly give the album some story content. Fans have already heard “Light Me Up” with Julia Michaels and Miguel earlier this week, a subdued and relatively simple track that focuses mostly on Michaels’ and Miguel’s vocals. “Undo” comes in with Jeremih and Tory Lanez, a half R&B/half subtle trap tune that has a wonderful melody tying it all together. This is easily one of the more radio-friendly singles from the album, but still readily accessible for the trappiest of heads.
RL Grime seriously flexes his sound design and arrangement on “Take It Away” with Ty Dolla $ign and TK Kravitz, bringing in wildly discordant synths and melodies for an other-worldly effect. The drop is more of an anthemic trap than we’ve heard on the rest of the album so far, which not only keeps things fresh but also demonstrates RL’s willingness to experiment. And then we get “OMG” with Joji and Chief Keef, which is exactly what it sounds like. Each rapper brings their own flavor, all rolled up into a nice, neat package by RL’s production. It’s exactly as it should be.
Now we get to my favorite part of the album: “Shoulda,” “Reims,” “Pressure,” and “Era.” This is when RL Grime takes it back to pure production and flexes hard. “Shoulda” is, completely out of left field, a liquid breaks tune, something we’ve never heard from him before. It’s mellow and melodic and flows magically right into “Reims,” one of RL Grime’s most anthemic future bass tracks ever. The intro is positively stunning with the oscillating synths and subtle synths in the background, bringing in the chimes and pumping up the suspense. Even though we’ve been able to listen to “Reims” for months now, it just sounds different in the context of the album.
After “Reims” comes “Pressure,” easily the hardest and most bass-heavy track of the album. Going from something as beautiful as “Reims” to something as devilish as “Pressure” is really something only RL Grime could make work, but it works so. damn. well. And it helps that it was co-produced by Boys Noize. Now, I’ve both car tested and studio tested this song and the one thing you need is a powerful sub – a standard car sub just won’t cut it. The amount of distortion in the bass will make it sound pretty rough in a car; the clearer and deeper you can get the bass, the better, because this song really deserves your full attention.
The final song in this quartet of madness is “Era,” which is probably the second hardest song on the album. This is another song that RL fans have been able to listen to for months, but it holds up just fine here. And with the drum & bass second drop, it really shows how much influence DnB has had on RL Grime on this record, with both “Shrine” and “Shoulda” embodying elements of the genre.
The interlude “Run For Your Life” is perfectly placed in my opinion, between four of the hardest, most complex tracks on the album, and some of the more poppy material. It’s a beautifully written song in its own right, one of the few on the album that was written and produced solely by RL.
This is followed up by the poppiest track on the album, and the beginning of NOVA‘s resolution, “I Wanna Know” with Daya. This track was widely panned by fans and critics alike when it first came out, including Your EDM, but RL Grime’s ability to tell a cohesive story is compelling. In the context of NOVA, “I Wanna Know” sounds just as at home as either “Era” or “OMG.”
“UCLA” with 24hrs is one of the more interesting tracks on the album contextually. The vibe behind it doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of NOVA, but it will inevitably become an anthem for the Southern California school at house parties – we’d put a hefty bet on that.
The album gets back into a groove on “Rainer,” which presents itself as a sort of rave/trap hybrid with a fast, pounding rhythm and rising synths that never seem to want to come down. It’s almost an interlude on its own if it weren’t for the length. And it all leads to…
“Atoms,” with Jeremy Zucker. A better ending song for such a prolific album we could not imagine. It’s serene and quaint, a calm endcap to a passionate album that has become this writer’s #1 album of 2018 (so far).
And before I do anything else, I feel it’s necessary to highlight all of the other producers who made this album possible. In order of tracks on the album: ADP, Diplo, Skrillex, Boombox Cartel, King Henry, Noah Breakfast, Yung Berg, Cardiak, Abaz, Xplosive, Graves, Boaz van de Beatz, Jim-E Stack, Boys Noize, Nonsens, MYRNE, Dan Nigro, Noah Gersh, Charlie Handsome, Rex Kudo, Cass Lowe.
Listen to NOVA below.
Photo via Rukes.com