The very first track on Najii Person's latest EP, #@%! Is Forever, starts with a brief audio snippet of a young girl's voice asking what many of his listeners might also be wondering: "But for real, why did you — why did you bleep out the word?"
Smartly, the St. Louis rapper doesn't answer the question immediately, instead guiding the listener through ten songs that deal in different ways with one of art's most notoriously ubiquitous, complicated and remixed ideas: love.
"The main thing I really want people to get is what the word actually is," explains Person. "Some people get it immediately after the first song, but for some people they don't really know what I'm talking about until, like, five songs in."
On the surface, it's a risky bet. What happens if the listener never figures out the title? And if they don't, can they still enjoy the album anyway? Thankfully, the puzzle pays off in large part due to an EP that is sonically cohesive and lyrically thoughtful without being too conceptual for people to connect with. For an idea as well traveled as "love," obscuring the word invites us to engage a bit more deliberately with the EP as a whole.
#@%! Is Forever's first track, "That Word," works well as an opener, with a clean, even flow and stream-of-conscious delivery that would be perfect for a late summer drive. Featuring the soulful vibrato vocals of St. Louis singer-songwriter Katarra, the first half of the song gives us a wealth of pretty clear hints to the title's missing word. The music breaks for a 30-second audio clip of Person briefly explaining his perspective on love before guiding us into a lower, steadier beat to close out the track. Of course, there are some familiar tropes ("she measures her worth by the measurement of his condom size / feeding the outer while the inner die") that pop up, but we get a taste of some of his fresher lyrics ("combo McLegs weakin', leakin', Eden, sneak in / I was an invite, whatchyou know about insight, see the world through her eyes") on display here, too.
"Where You Going," the EP's second track, is a fan favorite, according to Person, and it's easy to imagine why. The song's chorus is simple for a crowd to rap along to and a great way to build energy at a live show. Also featuring vocals from Katarra and another 30-second audio clip, this track's ending switches into a much silkier sound that reminds the ear of Childish Gambino's "Redbone." The switch in tone leads well into #@%! Is Forever's third song, "Young #@%!" — a short track with another audio interlude and the beginning of several R&B-influenced tracks on the EP.
The third, fourth and fifth tracks — all with notes of R&B influence — were produced by Person, who names track five, "Morning Run," as his personal favorite. It's one of the most, if not the most, transparent and vulnerable tracks on the EP. Here, Person raps about the risk and frustration of a young relationship between two people with differing intentions, possibly shedding a light on the rapper's mindset when he was putting the project together.
Person says that he'd actually been thinking about making an EP about love for the last three years to process his own experiences, and the experiences of friends his age, with navigating relationships. When it came time to actually work on the project, he sat down with those friends and recorded a candid conversation about what love means and looks like for young people today. The audio clips dispersed throughout #@%! Is Forever make a bit more sense now; they're artifacts from Person's original conversation with friends. The varying topics that came up during that talk served as prompts that Person used to create the EP.
"It was everything I had experienced up until that point, and I wanted to talk about it and get it off my chest," he says. "You kind of hear it in the first song, how I felt about what our generation feels about the world."
The most sonically exciting portion on the EP comes at the end with "Nigga," produced by ACE, and "Strangest Feelings," produced by Person and OV and featuring rapper PHONZZ. "Strangest Feelings" is the last song on the EP and offers another audio interlude, but gives listeners a sound that's pretty unlike anything else on #@%! Is Forever. It's a bouncier, layered track that's more playful and measured than might be expected for a closing song. For a rapper who describes his sound as "eclectic" and "experimental," this is a particularly memorable inclusion that sounds a touch fresher than some of the earlier tracks.
Prior to #@%! Is Forever's release, Person was in and out of the studio for a year putting the EP together. In addition to having a hand in producing about half of the tracks, the rapper also worked with St. Louis producers Owen Ragland, 92, ACE and OV, and with local visual artist Hayveyah McGowan, who designed the EP's cover art.
The result is a well-thought-out project that showcases Person's skill and growth since releasing his first single on SoundCloud back in 2015. Including audio interludes on seven tracks — three of which are in the middle of the song and not easy to skip — might seem like a lot, but given the project's roots, it makes sense. And for what it's worth, they're handled well. Audio interludes can be cumbersome and distracting, but these match the vibe of their individual tracks without disrupting the EP's overall flow too much. #@%! Is Forever is a well-produced sophomore EP from a rapper who is self-aware without being predictable, giving skilled wordplay, a fun vibe and a fresh sound.
"I really wanted to take my time with [the EP]," Person says. "I wanted it to happen more organically, so I just really took my time with it so I could make it what I wanted."