NNAMDÏ defies the pop music binary with Please Have a Seat
Before he became NNAMDÏ, avant-pop wizkid Nnamdi Ogbonnaya paraded the streets of southern Chicago, going to DIY shows downtown that were flourishing with young punk and indie troupes. NNAMDÏ’s proximity to it all is what inspired him to carve out his own spot within it. Like the Windy City marvels who donned underground hats before him, he came of age locally. “Some of me learning about the music scene had to do with older kids at school that had already begun getting into that DIY world,” NNAMDÏ says. “Also, living right next to Indiana, there were a lot of punk bands being formed right over the border. The rest is the result of internet sleuthing and music blog obsessions.” That heirloom-like bestowment has appeared across NNAMDÏ’s work for a decade, but most prominently on his latest record, Please Have a Seat, which, at its heart, is a love letter to the city he grew up in.
NNAMDÏ made a habit out of searching through DIY venues to find places to play, which is how he discovered acts he loved. That community he became a part of was crucial because many Chicago venues were 21+, and the budding young arts movement wasn’t able to attend a lot of shows. “I started a few bands mainly playing drums,” he says. “That eventually brought me to start hosting shows at my folks’ house in the ‘burbs. Then, [we] began playing shows around the Chicago area and booking our own tours shortly after.”
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In 2013, NNAMDÏ released Bootie Noir, which filtered an uncategorical sonic palette, one that fused hip-hop, R&B, post-punk and indie pop. There’s something beguiling about his artistic blueprint. The songs are as limitless and ambitious as they are centered and meticulous. The current landscape of independent music is crowded with “genre-busting” or “genre-defying” artists, creators embracing the margins rather than the typical. But if you look at pillars like NNAMDÏ, who has never been confined to any certain element, it becomes obvious that his sonic entanglements are not episodic, but a painstaking craft he’s spent years honing.
NNAMDÏ’s first big song, “Art School Crush,” is nearly 10 years old now, but it’s still as infinitely catchy as the day it dropped. It endures with new audiences, thanks to Spotify’s constant playlist curations. “I love [“Art School Crush”] and knew that it was going to be one of my most popular ones when I wrote it,” NNAMDÏ says. “It’s just a feeling I got. But even thinking about it now, it’s wild that, for how long ago I put it out, it has been consistently added to new playlists and is, pretty continuously, the most-streamed song I have.” The song’s architecture, which incorporates as many styles as three minutes will allow, can be found on Please Have a Seat, in cuts like “Careful” and “Smart Ass,” which dare to amalgamate trap percussion, indie pop guitars, octave-surfing vocals and glossy synths into one enrapturing piece. In a world of oversharing and trends and virality, there are reasons to be hopeful about the longevity of the DIY scene — especially when artists like NNAMDÏ take that dynamic pastoral and grandfather it into their own work.
Earlier this year, NNAMDÏ headlined a festival in Columbus, Ohio with Alex Cameron. SoupFest, an all-day odyssey of tunes and steaming bowls of brothy goodness, wedged itself into a hot ballroom that once housed big-band acts during the Depression. By the time NNAMDÏ took the stage, the crowd had glowed themselves into one communal belly of beer, but, as he played 10 years’ worth of hot tracks, they littered the air with various cheers for him and chants of “soup.” Whether or not they knew the songs, it was like a fraternity reeking of craft beer and pork chili verde, and Ogbonnaya honed the energy into a blazing set that transformed the room into the hypest spot in the city.
NNAMDÏ’s musical persona, and off-record personality, was built for oddball venues and rowdy, all-in crowds. His 2017 LP Drool was a kaleidoscopic hip-hop joint that tested the limits of experimental flows and arrangements. The next year, NNAMDÏ would play a masterful Audiotree Far Out set from inside Bucktown Market in the Wicker Park district of Chicago. He’s no stranger to taking the shape of whatever rundown joint will receive him, and, in every instance, NNAMDÏ is unrelenting in his show-stoppage.
But it was 2020 that was, deservedly, NNAMDÏ’s year. He released the opus Brat in April, which holds “Wasted,” one of the best pop tracks of this decade. Over a month later, his three-song, punk-constructed EP Black Plight spoke about the worth of Black people in the wake of emotional and physical violence inflicted upon them by power-hungry, power-abusing people. For a decade, NNAMDÏ has turned in a catalog that celebrates Blackness by reclaiming the genres that the Black community first blueprinted and placing them back in the forefront of indie rock.
[Photo by Dennis Elliott]
When the Chicago Tribune named him “Chicagoan of the Year” that December, it was without a doubt. “It was incredibly important to me and a true honor,” NNAMDÏ says. “A lot of times, I have better shows in other places, and sometimes the place you’re from can seem less excited about you than outsiders. So, getting that award was bonkers. I was really just focusing on my music and trying to share it and bring joy to people and help however I can.” In 2017, VICE called NNAMDÏ “Chicago’s weirdest musician.” His music has always felt so innately Chicagoan that, when he says he’s had historically better shows in other cities than in his hometown, it’s surprising. It’s been a while since he’s had a bona fide show in the city, and, after spending some time on the street festival circuit, he’s eager to get back.
Brat was the defining NNAMDÏ project, as it felt like a long-awaited mission statement on art devotion and grappling with ego. Whether or not NNAMDÏ is a tortured artist is not our place to know, but, on Brat, he revealed how plainspokenly familiar his own internal contradictions are. But it’s 2022 now, and NNAMDÏ has returned, ready to take a victory lap with Please Have a Seat, his finest work yet, as it taps into the persona of a virtuosic goofball who’s unafraid of his own faults, which he’s fully embraced. “I’m just trying to be organic in my interests,” NNAMDÏ adds. “I’m equally silly as I am stern and reflective. I think it’s a natural habit that just seeps into my creative endeavors. [I’m] always hoping to expand, evolve and learn more about myself through art.”
Please Have a Seat arrives in a rollout that’s more celebratory than that of Brat’s was. Because the latter is so raw and tethered to heavy, humming maximalism, the diverse sounds shimmering across the former might not arrive as profoundly. But don’t get it twisted: NNAMDÏ has never risen more singularly than at this very moment. If Brat was him at his most ambitious, then Please Have a Seat is him at his most confident. “[Please Have a Seat] covers a bit of terrain: confidence, trauma, comfort, how we react to life,” NNAMDÏ says. “I just want people to enjoy the good songs and let it resonate within them.”
NNAMDÏ is, without a doubt, one of the few artists remaining whose charisma hasn’t been compromised for the sake of making accessible records. The sonic landscapes of jazz fusion, cosmic art pop, acoustic guitars, trap beats and pure silliness shouldn’t work together, but they do. And he’s going to keep merging those sounds as relentlessly as he can. One moment, NNAMDÏ’s flow is poised and bumping. By the next song, he’s traded bars for a buttered falsetto. Album turns can sometimes arrive jagged, but on Please Have a Seat, the transitions are breathtaking. “I really love piecing together a cohesive story that flows together. I think album order and flow is crucial to a project, so I do put a lot of time and thought into those details as well,” NNAMDÏ adds.
In an authentic presentation of his own versatility, the singles of Please Have a Seat — “I Don’t Wanna Be Famous,” “Anti” and “Dedication” — touch every corner of NNAMDÏ’s repertoire. In contrast with Brat, however, the songs of Please Have a Seat don’t clash; they mesh. It’s as if the Chicagoan’s boldness has finally locked in in totality. Most of that is a product of Ogbannaya’s attachment to vocal melodies, which almost always form the basis of his work. “It can start with a voice memo or me fooling around on guitar or keys, but it’s typically melodic,” he says. “I’ll find the instrument that feels the most at home with the melody and expand from there. Usually, percussive elements and lyrics come towards the end, which sometimes surprises people, with me being a drummer.”
NNAMDÏ is chameleonic. His footprint is all over contemporary music. Recently, he opened for black midi and Jeff Rosenstock. Five years ago, he was playing drums for Vagabon. He’s taken turns as a bassist in Lillie West’s band Lala Lala and also plays drums in the instrumental math-rock outfit Monobody. He runs one of Chicago’s greatest indie labels, Sooper Records, with Glenn Curran and Sen Morimoto. Sooper’s existence began, as NNAMDÏ puts it, “out of a love and appreciation for a lot of the folks we were friends with [who were] making dope shit.” The label doesn’t change the way Ogbonnaya makes a record, but it makes him more conscious about how he wants it presented to the rest of the world.
NNAMDÏ wedges his way into any musical space and flourishes. The fact that we so often don’t even realize it is a testament to his ability to transform without commanding any kind of ruckus. “Please Have a Seat can mean many things. It can be you telling someone to have a seat for their own safety, like on a plane. It can be you saying it in a bragging way, like you just juked [someone] in 2K,” NNAMDÏ says. “It could be someone telling it to you because they want to teach you something. The phrase gives way to versatility. During the course of this album, it means all of these things at different moments.”
So often, what Ogbonnaya gifts to his audiences are signals of hope. Two years ago on Brat, he gave us a mantra that proved more timely than ever: “There’s no need to pretend/You’re OK if you’re not.” Now, in 2022, he’s still fighting uphill like the rest of us. “Something told me I should stay/Things might end up better today/Fight, fight, fight, fight through the pain,” he sings on “Dedication.” To mine through the endless possibilities that music can offer is already a sign of someone’s unrelenting curiosity. But to pause and offer some kind of reconciliation to all of the ways in which the world wants to beat down on you is just as unrelenting and powerful.
None of NNAMDÏ’s wizardry is new, but his stardom is still climbing. He’s now passing his passions down to hungry audiences looking for a hero. Few musicians make it to the other side of the conversation — that interpersonal relationship with the elders of a city’s scene — but Ogbonnaya never left home, and now he is ready to pay his loyalty forward to the next generation. The world of NNAMDÏ is one of electrifying community. And, in turn, the title of Please Have a Seat rings perfect, as Ogbonnaya is asking us to join him, at his ever-growing table, while he wades through the current and continues to challenge the binaries of pop music by reinventing their every edge.