Since debuting the original “Metallic Butterly” in 2014, Princess Nokia has found time to start a podcast, release a couple of genre-defying mixtapes, model for Calvin Klein, drop a hit studio album, and win the mainstream internet’s heart in a viral video of social justice (the basic abstract: she throws soup in a crazed racist’s face). In a short period, Princess Nokia, born and raised in Harlem as Destiny Frasqueri, has grown into certified cult status. Her style, intellect and proud individuality is as inherit online as it is on record, and her outspoken feminism and social politics have gained her diehard fans. While her ideology has been consistent, her music has been amorphous: her latest release touched on emo and grunge, while her studio album “1992 Deluxe” was concerned with trap and psychedelic rap. But it was “Metallic Butterfly” where she sounded truly lost in a sound unlike anything released since. The balance of drum-n-bass, afro-latin and trip hop only sound more original with time, and now it’s finally released for streaming platforms, along with three new tracks.
Looking back at the video for lead single “Dragons” is like stepping into somewhere outside of time. The year is 2014, but the jungle breakbeat is straight out of the 90’s, Nokia and her boyfriend kiss in an 80’s arcade, and the references to anime are a staple of rap in 2018. Princess Nokia’s early videos presented a sound and style that was instantly intriguing and, in hindsight, clearly influential. Her command of this style, crafted with genre-fluid NY producer Owwwls, doesn’t lose any of its charm. The bass of “Dragons” is slightly heavier, her voice a little fuller. The remastering allows the album to be truly cranked, and these fan favourites are given more life.
“Metallic Butterfly” is at its best when the duo explore the breakbeat sound introduced with “Dragons” and on earlier viral track “Bitch I’m Posh.” One of the highlights of the album is “Seraphims”, where Nokia winds dreamy vocals around an electronic drumbeat, painting images of feminine power: “I am a women, I do not break, I bend / I’m sent to heal, angels are real.” The chords, horn stabs and relentless beat prove the artists are taking from a movement they love and understand. If “Seraphims” can be called ‘trip hop’, it’s still the best use of the genre in a long time.
Princess Nokia’s strength comes from mood and understanding of genre, rather than perfect vocal chops. Obviously, as a rerelease, the imperfections or slight hitches of the orignal are still here, unaltered. When it comes to particularly sultry songs, Nokia can trail off-key at the end of lines, whether intentionally or not. Mood is more important than pitch, an ethos most constant on bonus track “Anomaly”, a song taken so directly from original-Matrix-era 90’s they must have been dusting off 20 year old PCs. “Anomaly” and “Biohazard Butterfly” sound like cyberpunk mushroom trips, which hardly require perfect singing.
At times the beats approach the more-housey moments of Azealia Banks (a frequent Owwls collaborator), and Princess Nokia surely drew comparisons to M.I.A with a semi-British accent and celebration of world music. But these are knee jerk reactions, and as this album unfolds you get a proper scope of a sound that’s miles from her contemporaries. Nokia seems more interested in exploring the spirituality of rave and trance music. Maybe a more apt comparison is Grimes, and there is one track that has images of cyber fantasy and nostalgia that seem to come from the same world as the Canadian artist. On the glitchy “Cybiko”, the closest thing to rap on the album, Princess Nokia says “digital rage is my digital sage / digital junk go page for page.” In another confusing time warp, she calls 2014 the “digital cage of the Myspace age” – which seems well and truly in post-Facebook territory, but it’s a cool line anyway. “Making Xanga things with my Dell PC” seems like something Grimes would be into, but this has a more anxious energy and harder club bounce than the Grimes we know and love.
Towards the end of the original album, before the (lesser) trio of bonus tracks, 90’s acid house gives way to the two-part “Bikini Weather / Corazon en Afrika”, a celebration of dance from different cultures. “Bikini Weather” has Princess Nokia briefly rapping over a ludicrous latin dance sample. “Corazon en Afrika” is her Afro-Latina pride anthem, and Owwwls provides a rattling dance beat under a uplifting, joyful African sample. It’s a huge stylistic segue, that works much better as the original record’s final song. Why end an album so firmly placed in 90s drum and bass with such a different sound? Probably, because Princess Nokia had much more of a story to tell, and was as influenced by different cultures as she was by New York raves. If this album was her coming-out-party, she was hinting at a career full of left turns.