Nav knows you weren’t really into his debut album. As he tells it now, seated comfortably on a plush couch in the rooftop lounge of a midtown Manhattan hotel, he wasn’t really into it either.
"I handed in the album like an assignment," he says of 2018’s Reckless. "I was literally in a reckless part of my life. I cared about money, I cared about girls, I cared about all the wrong things—not about the music."
Such an admission, with its implicit self-awareness and blunt honesty, seems out of character for Nav, the oft braggadocios Punjabi-Canadian rapper who is signed to The Weeknd's major label-affiliated XO imprint. On the album in question, he depicted himself as another one of hip-hop's hedonists, draped in designer threads as he drifts emotionlessly through a near-ceaseless stream of narcotic and carnal disposable pleasures.
But here, high up above the midday bustle and feeling reflective in the immediate afterglow of the release of Reckless' follow-up Bad Habits, the rapper/producer born Navraj Singh Goraya appears eager to own up to at least some of the challenge that comes with living in the public eye. "You can ignore a hater comment, but if you see the same comment ten times, you gotta start paying attention," he says.
"I mean, people still love [Reckless] but I didn't get the strongest response," Goraya concedes of the album's reception. "I was like, 'Damn. I got everything, I got the money, I got the car I want, I got the jewelry, what do I actually want?'"
It’s difficult to tell where the Nav persona ends and the human begins. His willingness to accept that Reckless failed to meet both his own standards and those of critics and listeners, as well as why and how that happened, comes couched in reflexive image maintenance. The affable 29-year-old seated before me with the dripping wrist need not reiterate that he's stacked his paper and leveled up. Yet that same fixation on material wealth has been weaponized against him by detractors ever since he parlayed his co-production win for Drake’s Meek Mill diss "Back To Back" into a foreground go at the rap game.
"It's tough for someone to see me from the outside, the way I look, to take me seriously," Goraya says regarding perceptions of his public persona and his ethnic background. He acknowledges that bias may play a role in how he’s been received in certain circles, particularly with those who didn’t grow up around diversity like he did in Rexdale. "In my neighborhood, there's Korean kids that are saying the N-word, even though it's predominantly black in my neighborhood," he says, referring to the controversy around his own now-disavowed casual use of the term. Though quick to point out how he has friends of various races, he appears to have taken the proverbial L for not understanding how that would offend and anger potential listeners. "You can use the race card or you can be like, 'my last album sucked.'"
While Bad Habits is not a radical departure from the themes and styles evident on Reckless and its mixtape predecessors Nav and Perfect Timing, the results are demonstrably more refined, with a keener sense of pop-wise hooks and engaging beats. He's joined by a formidable cross-section of rappers, including Future and Young Thug, whose respective techniques and strategies served enlightening as Goraya worked on artistic self-improvement. "I picked up their style of working,” he says. "The whole punching in process is right there, mumbling a whole song and filling in the words."
Following the tepid response to Reckless, Goraya explains that he sought to adapt from being seen as a guy rapping over beats to a multifaceted artist and musician. That meant taking greater ownership of the material that would become Bad Habits, as a producer as well as a vocalist. With good intentions, he rented a mansion in Vancouver for a nearly two-week intensive, surrounded by people whose opinions he valued. The process proved painstaking and did not go as planned. Of the 15 songs written there, only "Why You Crying Mama" made the final cut. With references to his mother discovering some of the shadier aspects of his hustle, that track, one of the few Bad Habits cuts that offers an actual glimpse into the person behind the moniker, hints at a personal depth that Goraya has been reluctant to mine previously, one that he remains guarded about. "I think I'm doing it at a baby step at a time," he says of sharing this side of himself with fans. "I feel like I took a little leap and I gave them a little bit of insight into my life."
From end to end, he estimates it took about a year to complete Bad Habits, though much of the work transpired in studios in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the six months prior to its release. He recalls making "To My Grave" in Calabasas just before dawn with engineer Pro Logic, "Snap" around Coachella 2018 with Trouble Trouble and Money Musik, and "Hold Your Breath" (drunkenly) during a French Montana studio session. Some of the songs only wrapped days before he delivered them to the label, including the Meek Mill featured "Tap" and "Price On My Head" with The Weeknd, both of which became the album’s initial singles.
Goraya's efforts appear to have paid off commercially as well. Bad Habits debuted atop the Billboard 200 album chart, edging out upper echelon competitors like Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, Juice WRLD’s Death Race For Love, and Rich The Kid’s The World Is Yours 2 in its first week. Even as it slipped in the subsequent weeks, as most No. 1 albums do, the record still ranks highly, holding No. 28 in its fifth consecutive charting week. Whether or not he’s accomplished the desired shift in optics is up for debate, though the numbers alone suggest he’s delivered the biggest album of his career to a receptive audience.
Goraya's road to Bad Habits’ big Billboard moment arguably started with 2016’s "Beibs In The Trap," a highlight off Travis Scott’s RIAA platinum-certified sophomore album Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight. Even then, with the Houston native still very much en route to eventual 2018 Astroworld domination, the pair captured their relative strengths as part of a then-rising class of singing rap sensations. Peaking somewhat modestly at No. 90 on the Hot 100 singles chart, "Beibs In The Trap" went on to earn double-platinum status stateside, proof of its popularity beyond a chart still beholden to the whims and restrictions of terrestrial radio.
Goraya's subsequent projects were met with far less enthusiasm or commercial success than they ought to, especially considering the XO imprimatur. Released in February of 2017, his eponymous and predominantly self-produced mixtape arrived with The Weeknd in tow, but no other vocal guests. With Goraya more or less alone on the mic for just over a half hour, Nav exposed his relative naïveté as a vocalist. Though its lead single "Some Way" benefitted from the gossipy discourse around the label boss's apparent feud with fellow pop star Canuck Justin Bieber, the record failed to capitalize on the quippy charms of "Beibs In The Trap."
Nonetheless, Goraya had some serious support in his corner, something made abundantly clear scarcely five months later when Perfect Timing dropped. Co-billed with Metro Boomin, the mixtape came a year after the trap producer extraordinaire’s sensational Savage Mode team-up with Atlanta-based breakout artist 21 Savage. With a selection of features from the likes of Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, and Offset, it fared somewhat better on the Billboard album charts than Nav did, peaking at No. 13 in its opening frame. "Me and Metro were still learning our relationship with one another," he says. "We were trying to get to know each other through that whole process." Though Metro Boomin was noticeably absent from Reckless' credits as well as those for Bad Habits, they've continued to produce together, most notably on A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s The Bigger Artist and Gunna’s Drip Season 3, though Goraya suggests there's more on deck from that studio-based partnership.
Even after securing that coveted cosign, he still wasn’t convincing the rap music press, who after two tapes summarily chided him for staid delivery, superficial lyricism, and perceived culture vulturism. "The craziest thing I've ever been called in my whole career is an industry plant," Goraya says. "For 10 years I was in battles. They don't see that part; they just see the end result." He gestures at his Louis Vuitton outfit, implying that the luxury he often raps about did his image some unanticipated harm.
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Artistic criticism aside, some of which even Goraya owns up to in retrospect, the cutting prose and dismissive vitriol that writers unloaded on these early efforts seemed, at times, needlessly harsh and reactionary. A common if curious Nav meme parodies him as some sort of elder statesman, old enough to have lived through the American civil war. (Full disclosure: I too have been known to post the occasional snarky tweet.) After all, the slackness of his lyrical content certainly jibes with the bulk of the trap and SoundCloud rap dominating the hip-hop conversation. As such, one might reasonably question whether such heavy-handed judgment of his records would have been doled out had he not been a self-described "brown boy" from the Toronto suburbs.
Yet Goraya refuses to assign the blame solely to those who don’t get him on cosmetic grounds or because he doesn't perfectly fit some stereotypical description of a rapper. "There are some times that I see people just hate and I'm like, 'Wow, do I suck this bad?' And yeah it's probably the pressure of my race, that they just can’t get over it." Whatever the reasons or rationale, even if the critics—professional or otherwise—weren’t on board with him, the listeners clearly were. With the success of Bad Habits and a corresponding North American headlining tour kicking off in a matter of weeks, he has less reason than ever to pay attention to them than ever before.
"No one comes up to me and says your album sucks," he says. "They only want a picture. They only wanna say good things. If I got lost in haters, I'd fuckin' be miserable."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily. See Nav perform live at one of his upcoming tour dates:
May 21, San Diego, CA — House of Blues San Diego
May 22, Anaheim, CA — House of Blues Anaheim
May 24, San Francisco, CA — The Fillmore
May 26, Vancouver, CA — PNE Forum
May 28, Seattle, WA — Showbox Sodo
May 29, Portland, OR — McMenamins Crystal Ballroom
May 31, Salt Lake City, UT — The Depot
June 2, Denver, CO — Summit
June 4, Minneapolis, MN — Varsity Theater
June 6, Chicago, IL — House of Blues Chicago
June 7, Milwaukee, WI — The Rave/Eagles Club
June 8, Detroit, MI — The Fillmore Detroit
June 10, Toronto, CA — Echo Beach
June 11, Montreal, CA — Mtelus
June 13, New York, NY — The Rooftop at Pier 17
June 14, Boston, MA — House of Blues Boston
June 15, Philadelphia, PA — The Fillmore Philadelphia
June 17, Silver Spring, MD — The Fillmore Silver Spring
June 18, Charlotte, NC — The Fillmore Charlotte
June 20, Miami Beach, FL — The Fillmore Miami Beach
June 22, Atlanta, GA — Tabernacle
June 24, Houston, TX — House of Blues Houston
June 25, Dallas, TX — House of Blues Dallas
June 27, Phoenix, AZ — The Van Buren
June 28, Los Angeles, CA — Hollywood Palladium