Hometown star offers hip hop cliches and disappointing show
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
When: Tue., April 11
Vibe: A glimpse into the most clinical and mainstream form of rap
Rating: N (out of 5)
Highlight: The mini-Travis Scott concert that NAV offers his fans
NAV GETS A LOT OF HATE. Just one scroll through Twitter will show the countless memes ridiculing the Rexdale-born musician. His first-ever arena show and his final night of tour, at Scotiabank Arena, in his hometown should be his opportunity to redeem himself.
As one of the only South Asian rappers on the scene and a signee to the Weeknd’s XO label, I would love to write a review that redeems him and shows that, despite how often this man is ridiculed, he’s able to put on a show and challenge the nay-sayers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
I cannot say my expectations were high for this show. I first discovered NAV, like many others, when the Weeknd delivered an excellent verse on his song Some Way and was excited at the prospect of a Canadian-Indian rapper taking over the music industry. That didn’t last very long.
Unfortunately, like many of the brown boys I grew up with and the ones present at this show, NAV blatantly rejects his heritage, leeching onto Black culture instead, without considering any of the actual depth that comes with it. As a result, his music reads itself as soulless, with generic lyrics about having money and getting girls — devoid of any of the things that make hip hop great. It’s a bleak embodiment of the current state of mainstream rap, one that relies on streams, features and buzz.
NAV does have some talent, but most of it lies in his production, and it’s probably the reason he’s attracted some of rap’s biggest icons, including Drake, Meek Mill, Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert, two of whom will make an appearance at this hometown show. However, production skills are not enough to command a crowd like the one at Scotiabank Arena. His DJ has to do most of the grunt work, hyping up the crowd with an unreleased Weeknd song before going into a song off NAV’s latest record, Never Sleep. NAV appears on the stage, low energy, to deliver one of his longest verses. His songs, all under two minutes and variations of trap rap, blend together before you have the time to digest them. It’s probably for the best, as they all delve into very similar topics — taking girls out to Nobu and flexing on haters.
Thankfully, NAV does have some surprises in store. The first appears about 15 minutes into his set: Philly legend Meek Mill, with whom he performs his song Tap. It’s a drastic difference watching Meek appear, a reminder of how to successfully command an arena as a rap star. NAV asks Meek to perform his hit song Dreams and Nightmares, to which the crowd knows every lyric. It’s a refreshing reminder that they do sometimes listen to better music than NAV.
I find myself dreading NAV’s return to stage after watching such an engaging performance but, thankfully, he answers my prayers bringing out another guest. This time it’s a newcomer, Lola Brooke, a drill rapper from Bed-Stuy who performs her track Don’t Play With It, the chorus of which dominates TikTok feeds. Brooke is tiny, but she’s aggressive and captivating, proving herself to be a better performer than NAV. Meek Mill films her from the side stage like a proud parent. It’s an exciting highlight in what was previously a dull set.
The bar is low but I am appreciative of NAV for co-signing an upcoming female rapper, something that is not common in the highly misogynistic landscape of mainstream rap.
Then it’s back to the slurry of monotoned and autotuned NAV hits. Some are endearing, like his feature with Young Thug and Gunna, on which he gets the crowd to chant “Free Thug” (Young Thug has been imprisoned for almost a year for a RICO case, a reminder of the very real implications of the rap game). Myself, off of his debut album is one of the only times of the night that NAV successfully engages the crowd, getting them to shine their phone lights out. It’s a more mellow song about a slightly deeper subject matter, reconciling with drugs and fame. When NAV chants, “Growing up my teachers told me I would never be shit,” this crowd, largely brown boys from the outskirts of Toronto, relates.
There are a few more songs to go, but it still feels like there’s more in store. And NAV’s setlist has been lacking in the songs for which he’s gained a lot of fame, the ones with Travis Scott. As the opening notes to their hit beibs in the trap start off, the crowd knows what’s coming as Scott runs onto the stage and the energy in Scotiabank Arena suddenly dials up. This enthusiasm and excitement is what a concert should feel like. The two of them also perform Champion before NAV exits the stage once again to let Scott do his thing. The crowd is in hysterics: Scott is akin to a god to them and you cannot deny that he is a stellar performer. When he performs two of his most popular hits Antidote and SICKO MODE, ones that never go unplayed at a good house party, he steals the show. It’s a masterclass in how to command a crowd.
But as NAV returns to perform his final song of the evening, Turks, Scott’s energy has rubbed off on him a little bit. For a few seconds, I’m excited to see what he does next, but his energetic performance lasts a whole of 90 seconds before he exits the stage. No encore, despite the crowd’s cheers.
As the crowd exits the stadium, I can’t help but feel frustrated. This could have been a night for NAV to prove himself, but ultimately, he doesn’t really have to. His show at Scotiabank proves he can bask in fame and money, ride off of his co-signs and still have fans eager to come to his shows. Why would he do anything else?