Listening back recently to his soon-to-be-released new record, rapper and producer Moemaw Naedon started to get a little nervous. There were moments of Hard Head Mush Brain—which he made in collaboration with French producer Phado Pantoja—that felt almost too emotionally open.
“I almost hit up Phalo and was like, ‘Yo we gotta cut this one track, I’m not comfortable with this,’” Naedon says with a laugh.
Staying open is almost invariably a good thing when it comes to art, and in the end Naedon kept the record, which comes out March 8, as it was. But while he hasn’t completely abandoned his typically veiled, metaphoric approach to lyricism (Hard Head Mush Brain still features plenty of surreal cinematic story-spinning) working with Pantoja naturally led him in a different direction.
“Phalo’s beats are almost, I wanna say, heartfelt, at times … I can only do the abstract stuff so much before [the beats] eventually brought it out of me,“ he explains. “I like to leave [lyrics] open for interpretation because that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to, but I was like, ‘I’m going to be more direct this time.’”
Naedon, who grew up in a rural town outside of Pittsburgh, started paying attention to hip hop in 5th grade, around the time that Dr. Dre, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu Tang Clan were all releasing their most iconic records. Later, in high school, skate videos introduced him to weirder acts, like Arsonists and Mr. Dibbs. “That’s when I paid attention to what they were talking about, and hip hop as a culture with graffiti and breakdancing, and I was really interested in that,” he says. “I was kind of like, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
With his friend Brother Seamus (who is featured on this record, and with whom Naedon just released a 7-inch single) Naedon bought turntables, and the two started taking trips to Pittsburgh record shops where they would see fliers for shows. “That was around 1998,” Naedon recalls. “I just totally dove into hip-hop at that point, I started getting samplers and turn tables with tape decks and started doing what I could in my room to make beats.”
Naedon has the style of someone who’s been at this for awhile, and who’s old enough to have gained a certain amount of perspective and comfort with himself. His flow is bold, self-assured and elegantly aggressive, providing deeply satisfying tension to Pantoja’s delicately constructed soundscapes. Guest spots are also well-selected. On “Master of the Masks,” the loose, chatty style of Queens-based rapper Homeboy Sandman serves as the perfect auditory foil to Naedon’s laser-focus.
And because of Naedon’s confidence, this record’s moments of deep introspection never come off as maudlin over-sharing. On “Needy,” he takes stock of his (very relatable) faults, copping to sleeping in too late, bumming too many cigarettes, and generally falling short. “Need to be a better friend, better brother, better son, better lover, better man,” he raps, reminding himself that being fully, brutally honest with himself is always something to work towards. These are simple, universal sentiments, and listeners may be inspired to self-evaluate in the same way. But, as always with Naedon, there is subtle catharsis in a later line: “What I need might not be what I want next/ I need to be less selfish although I know/ I need to love myself first before I can let it go.”