Nav is a musical polymath. He raps, sings, produces, designs, engineers, and even memes with the best of them. Sometimes he’s so focused on creating that he forgets about music promotion, like he did this past week, just before the release of his new single “Never Sleep” with Travis Scott and Lil Baby. (His manager had to call and remind him.)
After five years and two consecutive No. 1 albums, Canada’s rap prince doesn’t necessarily have to tweet about a song with two other major names featured on it, nor does he need to do excessive press. At this point, fans are well aware of the XO signee, they’ve seen the side-by-sides comparing him to the likes of Mozart, and they’ve familiar with his engineer-to-artist backstory. As Nav tells Complex over the phone, all that matters now is the quality of his next release, Demons Protected by Angels.
“I feel like when you first start out, people like your story,” he says. “They like these facts about you. And as you get bigger and bigger as artists, it becomes all about the music. You know, ‘Is the music good or not? We don’t care about your story anymore. We don’t care that you make beats anymore. Is the music gonna hit?’ And I think we’re gonna hit and deliver, because I tried really hard, and I was very conscious about the song choices, topic choices, the lyric choices, everything. We’ll see.”
As he prepares to throw himself into the Demons album cycle, Nav finds himself in the “calm before the storm,” as he calls it. When we speak, days before the release of “Never Sleep,” he’s walking his dog, polishing up his album, and staying off social media (for the most part) after a realization that a somewhat-private online life suits him better. But once the music arrives, he’s prepared for everything to change. That’s when the music, and what he considers a potential song of the summer, finally arrives.
Leading up to his so-called storm, Nav opened up the title of the new album, his top five(ish) rappers, internet shenanigans with Drake, and the dawn of his comeback single, which finds him sparring with two artists who remind him how lucky he is to be making music at this level. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, follows below.
It’s been two years since your last solo album in Good Intentions. What have you learned about yourself musically since that last record?
Musically, I’ve learned a lot of things. But I think the most important thing that I learned was outside of music. Being inside the house, it kind of humbled me, because I was always on tour and people were always in my face and screaming for me. It just humbled me and made me deal with a lot of issues that I didn’t know I had. And that helps the music and the content.
Do you think you’ve come out a better person, or a better artist?
Definitely more grateful. I appreciate everything I have more.
The album is titled Demons Protected by Angels. What does that title represent?
The album title was inspired by a sweater that my friend had made. And I’ve begged him to get the sweater. I was like, ‘Yo, I wanna wear your shit and support my friend’s stuff.” So he brought it out and it had that on the back of the sweater. And it was very meaningful to me, because he came up with that himself when his mom passed away about a year ago. So I was like, “Wow, that’s even better.” Like, it actually has a good meeting. So that’s why we came up with it.
“The album title was inspired by a sweater that my friend had made.”
Did you interpret those words in your own way?
Someone close to me had pointed my eyes toward the sweater. They’re like, “Oh, that’s fire, can you make an album called that?” But the whole quote on this sweater was “fighting demons protected by angels.” We just thought it was too long. Then one of my producers had mentioned, “Maybe we should take the ‘fighting’ out.” We thought about it, and called our friends to ask them their opinion. We all said it’s kind of dope. Then one day we were playing dominoes in the studio, and I just randomly asked him, “How’d you come up with that?” He found that on Google, and then he told me where it’s from. It was even more meaningful.
You’ve been promoting it with billboards in Toronto, which I’m sure was really special to you. How important was it to throw the “Free YSL” quote on that billboard?
For me, personally, this doesn’t even feel the same. Putting out an album and not being around my peers, like Gunna and Thug and them, it just feels weird. So that being said, I have to put that up there.
“Never Sleep” is here this week. Did this date come up quickly to you?
Yeah, it did. Because when we announce things, things happen in my life. Today, my manager Cash was trying to get a hold of me. And I was not picking up my phone because I was doing something and then my assistant got a hold of me. And he’s like, “Yo!” He’s all mad at me, like, “You have the song coming out. You gotta post it and blah blah blah.” I’m like, “Oh shit, I forgot.” So much happens in between the time that you announce it. And then, like, we’re mixing the album. I was so focused on that, that I totally forgot.
How did you approach Travis and Baby with the song?
It was sent to Cash, and then Trav said, “You should get on this and put it on your album.” Cash decided, “Yo, this song is big and we should make it the single.”
It felt like a lead single to you?
It’s a hot song that we should for sure put out, so we can get some buzz going, then my album has a little bit of everything on it.
Do you always get that feeling with a single?
Sometimes I know, and sometimes Cash knows. But if he’s 100% behind something, I trust him. And if I’m 100% behind something, he trusts me. That’s usually how everything gets made.
I like the structure of the song. The three of you pass around lines, and it feels more call-and-response, as opposed to each of you getting a verse and that’s that. What is it like to share a song like that with these two?
It’s an honor. I started off as a beatmaker and an engineer, as this quiet person not really doing an artist thing. To be here now feels so out of place, in a good way. You know what I mean? Like, I can’t believe my name is there, it’s my song, it’s with these great artists, these big guys. I’m just really grateful that I can even be blessed to have the chance.
When did you record it?
Two months ago.
Is it nice to know you’re at a point in your career where you can turn a single around that quickly?
I’m blessed for my team and everybody that made my situation where we have a lot of freedom.
Mike Dean mastered it. Does it still feel special to share songs with production greats like Mike, since you started this music thing as an engineer and producer?
The day they were supposed to do the show in Toronto, he came with them, because he’s on tour with Abel. So when he came into the studio, that was the first time I think we actually had been in the studio together—like, just me and him. He was surprised I was speaking his language. I knew all the equipment I’m using… Later on, when he left the studio, he had left his iLok there. It looks like a USB with all your plugins on it, and he’s got, like, hundreds of thousands on it. He respected the fact that I know my shit, because he was calling me to go track it down, because I know what an iLok is and I know how important it is. He only called me, you know what I’m saying? He respects the fact that I know my shit, too.
“[When Drake posted the photo] I was trolling my friends all day. I’m feeling good. I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get texts from girls saying ‘Hey, big head.’’ It was hilarious.”
Do you still get a lot of people who are surprised when you name some of these aspects of production?
I think everybody’s surprised. In a good way. I’m glad I’m known for being an artist first, because I think if I was known for my beats first, or something else, it would be a little bit more difficult to transition into an artist. So it’s cool, but I always have to remind people, like, “Yo, I really do this shit.” Like, I can really play some piano and make a beat right now, and mix it and fucking record myself. That’s how I started. So it’s good to remind people when they forget.
Do you feel like you’re inspiring a new class of kids to focus on those abilities?
You should be a one-man band. Because at the end of the day, you own more of your stuff, and you have more control over it. And you don’t gotta wait on anybody else. I just got tired of waiting on people. So instead of waiting on an engineer when I used to make beats, I would be like, “Yo, you want the beat, and you want to buy it? Cool. I’m ready to record you right now.” We didn’t have to wait on nobody. And when it came to that attitude, when I was an artist, I didn’t have to wait on nobody to make the beat. I didn’t wait on nobody to record, mix it, and master it, to put it on SoundCloud. I made the artwork myself. That’s how the new age artist has to be, because then you’re ultimately creative. When it got out of my hands, and I couldn’t manage it no more, is when management came in.
A fan on Twitter said this new song “Never Sleep” will be the song of the summer without even hearing it in full. Do you hope to prove them right? Do you think it’ll be a summer hit?
This shit is gonna be playing a lot. The music that I listen to is not along the same lines of my biggest songs like “Turks” or something like that—that’s not even my musical taste. I mean, I just knew I could make it. But I can tell when a song is a hit. I can tell this is gonna go.
When do you know it’s going to be a hit?
I think every song has a sweet spot for everything. Meaning, tuning for all the melodies, tuning for all the notes, making everything in key—the right tempo, the right head on the bass drum or whatever. The right lyrics, the right flow choices. I feel like we found all those pockets. It hits everything.
“In no order [my top 5 rappers are] Nas, Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z. And the last one… last one is tough, man.”
Can you feel the eagerness on your end? How much does fan anticipation drive you these days?
Since the first project we ever put out, we’ve been doing like two projects and a mixtape, album shit, every year. Then Cash [saw] that vision where he was like, “Yo, it’s time to take your time now and take like a year—we’ll drop it later.” When he said that, I really took my time to live life and make a couple of songs here and there when I felt like it.
I was worried, like, “Am I gonna be done in time, blah, blah.” We went to Miami, rented a house, and did studio [time] there. We picked the best songs out of that trip. And we went to Toronto, and picked the best songs out of that trip. Every recording trip, we picked the best songs and put that album together. I didn’t feel ready for a whole year and a half. But now, once I look at the tracklist, now we’re ready.
Does listening to those songs take you back to those places?
How would you describe your approach to bringing artists together on one of your tracks? Do you automatically know who’s gonna fit where?
Sometimes Cash just knows right away. He’ll tell me and I’ll be like, “Yeah.” There’s a song that I did with Durk, and when I heard the song, I was like “Oh, this will be good on this.” He was thinking the same thing. Usually we think in the same line.
I don’t want to put you on the spot where you have to mention your friends, but I’m curious: Do you have a top 5 favorite rappers of all time?
I knew I’d be asked this question one day.
You can throw 10 around, no ranking, whatever works for you.
I’ll say five. In no order. Nas, Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z. And the last one… last one is tough, man.
We can leave a blank space if you’d like.
Blank space for that. Those are my top four.
Your fellow Canadians have dropped great projects this year, whether it be Dawn FM or Honestly, Nevermind. Do you take notes from what your friends release, before putting out an LP of this magnitude?
Of course you have to take notes, but then also kind of say, “Fuck it,” and just do it your own way, too. Like, I’m at the point where I have to have my own identity and my own individuality. So I’ll take notes from what people do right or wrong. I’ll learn from a mistake and the things that they did right, but then also have my own direction and just say “Fuck everything, fuck all that noise.” So the balance of the both is awesome. Both of them.
Is that something you had to learn over time?
It’s experience. I have a very experience-dense reality. I’ve experienced so much stuff in just five years. I’ve experienced more in five years than most people do in their whole life. Wisdom comes from experience, in my opinion.