Nova builds a three-dimensional portrait with an assist from J. Rawls

Andy Downing
Nova (standing right) and J. Rawls (seated)

Generally, Nova writes to a beat, playing it in a loop and allowing the music to draw his thoughts to the fore, the repetitive rhythm gradually shaping both the subject and feel of his words.

A warm, throwback soul sample, for instance, might send the rapper reeling back to early childhood and the Temptations records his father would spin at home, while a piano- or keyboard-heavy beat might transport him to his grandparents’ house in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where uncles and aunts often belted jazz and gospel songs gathered together around the keys. A harder-edged track, in contrast, can clear these layers of nostalgia, leaving the MC to reflect on harsher modern realities.

“The beat usually pushes me in a direction, as far as the writing goes,” said Nova, 29, who first discovered hip-hop via Busta Rhymes early in adolescence but didn’t attempt making his own music until he heard Common a few years later.

But for The Profit, a new EP that Nova recorded alongside local producer J. Rawls, the rapper was forced to take a different approach, since most of the songs were written while he worked construction in 2018, building rustic cabins on a remote resort in Northern California where he didn’t have online access to his usual bank of beats. “There was no internet,” said Nova, who will celebrate the EP release with Rawls in concert at Big Room Bar on Friday, Dec. 27, “so some of these were done with no music at all, or to a different beat [I had stored]. I would just sit [in my room] and write.”

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As a result, the songs that emerged had a stronger narrative pull than in the past, with each track offering a distinct shade of the rapper’s personality. Live-wire opener “On Spittin’,” for instance, is buoyed by playful rhymes, the rapper showing off both his lyrical dexterity and clever humor, while the comparatively somber “On Brotherhood (The Honorable)” wrestles with weightier issues of racial inequality. Other songs reveal Nova’s sometimes-introverted tendencies (“I wanna show myself, but it’s hard to do,” he raps on one song, relaying the difficulty he has establishing emotional intimacy in romantic relationships) and his fears that he might not live as long as his grandparents (“When’s the last time a rap god died of old age?”). Combined, the six tracks work to paint a fuller, more three-dimensional portrait of the artist as a young man.

Nova said this evolution was further aided by the information he gleaned in creative writing classes he took at Columbus State Community College in 2017, which, beyond a few practical tips (“One thing I took away was that you really want to sink that hook with the first line,” he said), reiterated the discipline required of the craft.

“It’s just being in practice. I remember coming across this line, and I’m not sure if I read it or it was in a movie, but it was, ‘The first thing to do as a writer isn’t to think, it’s to write,’” Nova said. “I took that to heart. When I sit down to write, it’s like, all right, let me just get something down so I can get to the editing. In the past, that idea could be stifling for me, but that writing class really helped me learn to put the pen to the page. Now it’s just go, go, go.”