I. It's so Cold in the D
“I seen niggas get into a fist fight over Nas and Jay. It was always that deep,” Nolan The Ninja recalls with a laugh. I laugh as well, trying to fathom the absurd image two adult males coming to blows over “Takeover” vs. “Ether” as children and young men spectate. The memory is one the millions the 25-year-old MC and producer has his upbringing on the west side Schoolcraft Ave, Michigan, where his mother raised him in her own mother’s home, the place he proudly proclaims made him who he is.
Detroit MCs are a vicious breed lyricist. The history books are filled with monsters who approached hip-hop the way hunters approach prey. Nolan carries on the lineage lyric-driven hip-hop with a rap voice that exudes the power a rhinoceros colliding head-on with a charging bull. “It’s never been about making the catchiest shit,” he explains after being asked what compels him to focus his attention on lyrics over melody. “It’s always been a thing to be dope with your rhymes. Showcasing skill and showing people that you can really do some shit.”
Nolan displays the homegrown polish an artist who grew up only thinking about being the best, bar for bar. His surroundings were cold, a reflection the ice in his bloodstream.
At 13 years old, Nolan gave up his hoop dreams after resting on the bench more than running up the court. Quickly, his mentality became “fuck it, I’m going to be a rapper.” In eighth grade, he started recording and passing out CDs—but only to his friends. Whatever beats he heard on BET's Rap City he would acquire through LimeWire and pen his own verses. Lunch money was always on the line, along with honor. “Battle before school, after school, and cyphers in the morning,” he reminisced. When you hear Nolan rap now, the hunger is still there as if his lunch money and honor are still on the line.
II. There Is No Point in Saying Less Than Your Predecessors
Hip-hop, like all art forms, is judged subjectively―a matter personal taste. Beneath hip-hop’s ever-expanding cultural umbrella are brands rap music with their own sound, style, and stigmas. All rap isn’t created equal, all rappers aren’t embraced the same, and everyone eventually ends up in a box. Perception holds an immense amount influence once the art is given a label, especially in genres where everyone is specially defined―not always their choosing.
On the song “Odium” from his 2017 sophomore album, Yen, Nolan acknowledges opposing perspectives surrounding boom bap rap, the category his music ten falls under. In the form a skit, you hear a disgruntled critic dismiss Nolan’s album for being boom bap bullshit―one many insults directed toward the Detroit rapper. It's playful, intended to be humorous, but there’s a layer truth within the jest. Beats embedded with the dust from basement crates and lyrical dexterity worthy recognition rest between the thin line warm nostalgia and cold passé.
Like many, I discovered Nolan in 2015 through various blogs who championed him as a lyricist cut from the backpacker's cloth. His debut album, HE(ART), was like listening to an unleashed rap machine aggressively dismantle beats. It was a boom bap bar-fest. But Yen, the excellent follow-up, exchanged wizardry for more transparency―the sophomore album is where you get to see the man. Can you progress without being stuck in a box?
I asked DJ Soko, Nolan’s manager/DJ/label head, how he defines his artist’s music:
III. Same, Same, but Different
You can hear it in Nolan’s raps, the passion a writer who takes pride in his pen. You can hear it in his beat selection, his gravitation toward soul samples, loops, and breakbeats. He’s a student the old, inspired by Nasty Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., yet, while listening to Yen, he isn’t without a sense moxie from the present. The way he speaks poverty and the yearn wealth isn’t a far cry from the themes found in modern street rap music—Nolan’s pursuit acquiring a Lexus isn’t so different from 2 Chainz bragging about the joy acquiring a Rolls-Royce Wraith; the way he immortalizes Schoolcraft Ave aligns with the same homely homage Gucci carries for East Atlanta’s Bouldercrest Road. The approach, sound, and style may differ, but the message found in most street rap is still within the same realm as Nolan's 'backpacker'―overcoming, representing, and prospering.
“They say I’m trying to be '90s,” Nolan confesses, his tone not giving away any emotion pride or distaste. “Then you got some people who see it as dope hip-hop. And some people don’t want to hear it at all because they don't listen to that music by any artist.”
Imagine all the artists who fer more than what their box is labeled but are unable to convince listeners to see beyond their celebrated identifier. Nolan’s intentions were never to fit into a brand music, nor to become the savior real hip-hop; his goal has always been to make music he genuinely felt was dope. As we discuss labels and stigmas, he doesn’t break into a rant about the flaws the mainstream hip-hop infrastructure or how his skill set makes him more worthy attention than the melodic counterparts bragging about their Gucci gangs. Instead, he expressed optimism:
IV. Yearning for Eternal Nirvana
From speaking with Nolan and DJ Soko, I got the impression that the duo only cares about making the best possible music, fitting their brand hip-hop, and still seeing success underneath the nose the more notarized. The two have known each other for seven years—since Nolan was 18 years old.
Soko watched gradually as he grew, seeing his growth from open mics to microphone monster. When it was time to reach back and foster a business relationship, Soko started f as his DJ, eventually signed Nolan to his label, Left Of Center, and finally became his manager. The grind has been gradual, but rewarding. They have built a concrete foundation with writers, artistic peers, and a growing fanbase.
Success has encouraged Nolan to dream bigger, to envision the acquisition luxury items and symbols status that he associates with wealth. One item is the Lexus, an object affection that first caught his eye in the music video for Nas' “The World Is Yours (Remix).” For all the earthly symbols wealth yearned for in his music, Nolan speaks frankly about remaining wealthy the mind, and humble within the soul. When asked what he yearns for in 2018, Nolan took almost no time to respond: “Progression.”
With his new production team, Cold Game, working in the shadows and eyes upon Europe as the next potential destination for a tour, owning that Lexus might be closer than he thinks.
By Yoh, aka Yoh The Samurai, aka @Yoh31