The family is deeply rooted in the life and music of Sage Elsesser. In the eight years since she began sharing songs on SoundCloud as Navy Blue, her relatives have maintained a constant presence: glimmers of light amid her sparse, melancholy compositions. In ways to know, his major-label debut, Elsesser brings them to the fore and leans on their wisdom as he navigates life as an adult. The loops are still hypnotic, the bass slightly funky. But the obscurity that defined much of Elsesser’s early work gives way to the quiet confidence of a man drawing strength from the roots of his family tree.
Elsesser pushes those roots deeper as he reaches for the sky. The messages of the ancestors are intertwined among the lessons learned from lovers. His confessional style, honest and open, never sentimental, makes him sound mature beyond his 26 years. How does a young man achieve such clarity? ways to know reveals his source: a family that nurtured him spiritually while giving him the freedom to grow, learn, and make mistakes.
“Pillars” is the cornerstone of these themes. The song focuses on brief moments with Elsesser’s grandmother: a daily kiss on her forehead, the vision of her late husband reflected in the face of her grandson, fresh flowers on her grave. Her connection evokes fond memories, leading to acceptance of the inevitable parting from her. It is here that we see the clearest signs of growth. No longer content to dwell in the dark, this navy blue finds joy in solemnity. When he offers a glimpse into the remains of his real-life relationship with model Binx Walton in “The One” and “Fall in Love,” he lays bare his flaws and insecurities, looking back not with regret, but with hope. of a future. A better future. It is as if she had her mother in her ear in her cabin, reminding her that “expectation presents cause for disappointment.”
More than any of Elsesser’s other records, ways to know carries an adoring tone. Not of any deity in particular, even the Yoruba Orishas to which she refers are less gods than spirit guides, but that of the self, the ancestors and the threads that unite them. He finds a tuned collaborator in producer Budgie (best known for the good book, a multi-volume collaboration with The Alchemist) and his trove of dark gospel and R&B records. Budgie production throughout ways to know it’s elegant and focused, its textures subtle, with flourishes occupying the periphery, so they don’t distract from the message. Even his soft ’90s R&B loops sound spiritual, like the quiet storm tune on Mike Davis’ album cut, “Call Me,” which he reprises on “Chosen.” And, in a last-minute addition to the credits, Frank Ocean collaborator Om’Mas Keith, whose contributions to Blond memorably becoming the subject of legal dispute, he is also named a producer on several tracks and plays piano on “Freehold”.
It all makes for a gorgeous record that’s subdued without being sleepy and cerebral without turning into third-eye word salad. Elsesser’s words carry the weight of wisdom: some are his own, from a life lived with passion, but most are inherited from his ancestors. Rhythm of his father, Rastafarian drummer; perspective of his grandfather, who instructed a young Elsesser to read Frederick Douglass to understand the plight of his town; the tenderness of his mother, whose words encourage him to love himself; and the hint of vanity from his grandmother, who raised a family full of artists, models and style icons. It took all of them and more to create Navy Blue.