With her official debut The Almanac, Neru Thee Fourth Fugee made one of the most adventurous releases of 2020. The rapper, producer and singer from Baltimore switches casually between content and atmosphere. She instinctively combines styles such as neo-soul, psychedelia, boom bap, trap funk and ambient. “I have created my own genre. You can trace many of the sounds directly back to me.”
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: Nygel Black
The concept behind The Almanac speaks for itself. An almanac bundles various types of data – from cosmic forecasts to transport timetables – about the coming year and thus tries to describe or predict events in the future. In short: the totality of man, the planet and the universe compressed into a handy pocket size. Or, in Neru's case, to album format: “The Almanac highlights many theories, events of a historical or astronomical nature. I hope to make various topics manageable for everyone.”
"I feel related to artists like André 3000 and Frank Ocean; I want to make albums that you have to listen to over a longer period of time to be able to digest everything."
Neru accomplishes that mission on The Almanac with gusto. She discusses a multitude of topics, but the album requires hardly any effort to listen to. In fact, gravity seems to have been extracted from this music. Some tracks sound like amalgamations of different songs, which together have taken on a life of their own. Again, it fits the concept of an almanac: some types of data are mathematical or didactic in nature, others are associative or allegorical. The productions are warm, light-hearted and interspersed with subtle dialogues, sound effects and samples. In short: the kind of groundbreaking work that labels like Warp and Brainfeeder are passionate about.
At 24, Angel Mooring is part of a generation where playlist-friendly singles-only releases are hipper than classic concept-oriented albums. But according to her, The Almanac fits much more into the second category. “I like to tell a story that is as complete as possible. I'm pretty old school in that regard." And indeed, in The Almanac all elements seem to be connected, to communicate. Neru's unique fusion of inspired abstractions and considered knowledge acquisition feels very purposeful.
Fun fact: the satirical artwork on the cover is a subtle nod to the Funkadelic record Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On. “Funkadelic and George Clinton are my biggest inspirations,” Neru confirms over the phone. “My father was a big fan and that influence has stuck with me too.” Enthusiastically, Neru explains the symbolism behind the various drawings Cassie Tucker has made for The Almanac: “The evil plants that grab people symbolize the food that is genetically manipulated. The plane at the top is spraying chemtrails down. The journalist spewing 'LIES' represents misinformation, mass media and propaganda. A pig dressed as a police officer shoots a black king with a ray gun, which refers to ongoing police brutality and racism.”
According to Neru, the illustration is an important visual extension for a record that she has been working on for five years. She weighs conspiracy theories like chemtrails just as much here as historical facts. “I simply try to make people think, and to achieve that you don't have to rule out anything. We don't dare to do that on a daily basis, in my opinion. A lot of ideas that I express on the album are not so much things I believe in myself. But I do think it is important to present as broad a palette of information and topics as possible. What the listeners ultimately do with that is up to them.”
Neru Thee Fourth Fugee lives in Baltimore, a city that has a diverse network of highly individualistic hip-hop scenes. Rather than adopting the usual "Lil" as a prefix, rappers use "Lor," which is more faithful to the typical Baltimore dialect. Yet there is no longer a well-defined 'Baltimore sound': artists feel encouraged to create their own following and identity. This includes Neru, who founded the platform Hippy Trippy Collective as a teenager, a close-knit collective of musicians, poets, fashion designers and graphic designers.
“There is little unity in Baltimore, so I try to create awareness by actively organizing events and gatherings myself. I love my city, we have a lot of talent here, but sometimes I feel like we don't realize what we can achieve with it. We don't have to get in each other's way: with large numbers we are much stronger in our shoes."
Neru is inspired by artists such as Mick Jenkins, Noname and Saba, artists who have made their own activist mark within their home base. She is well aware that her own work is still really underground and that great name recognition does not arise by itself. “I just don't want to do anything rushed or forced. I'd rather everything fall into place organically. It makes sense that The Almanac came about so slowly. In the first place I am independent. I feel related to artists like André 3000 and Frank Ocean; I want to make albums that you have to listen to over a longer period of time to be able to digest everything. I could never drop a new record every year and keep bombarding my listeners with new work. I released the double EP Enlightenment Era (under the pseudonym Neru Isis, ed.) in 2014 and I still have the feeling that people don't quite understand that record. The first half is really pure hip-hop, while the second half sheds more light on my laid back neo soul side.”
As a child, Neru was told by her parents to sing in a church choir and she initially resisted this: “My family is very religious. I knew I had a talent for singing, but because I had to, I didn't think it was a fun activity.” Basketball was her first passion, but bad luck quickly put an end to that dream: within two years she tore both her cruciate ligaments. Then back to music; at Baltimore City College to be exact. “I started to deepen my interest in music during that time. By gaining a lot of theoretical knowledge, I had the right breeding ground to publish my own work.”
Neru went through several creative phases, eventually arriving at Neru Thee Fourth Fugee. 'Neru' is New Persian for power, while 'Fugee' is of course a reference to the influential nineties group of Lauryn Hill, Pras and Wyclef Jean. However, the origin of her stage name comes from a completely different source; it's a phrase from the Ab-Soul track "Black Lip Bastard." “When I told him my name was inspired by one of his songs, he was quite surprised!”
Neru is proud that she has made a record in which everyone can chart their own course of discovery. Nevertheless, The Almanac was fueled by a difficult personal phase in her life. “I was in a rather toxic relationship around that time. A number of songs on Enlightenment Era are also inspired by that period.
“As an artist I've always remained independent so far and I'm used to doing a lot myself. That also means that I was often on my own. But I consider myself a free thinker, someone who prefers to approach such subjects from a memorable perspective.”
Neru's insights and gut feelings reinforce each other in surprising ways on The Almanac. Opening track 'Doom' looks for two extremes within the first phrases: 'All my bitches kill for me like the Manson family / Similes and symbolism make the vision oh so vivid / You hear the peace in silence / Positive vibes / Fuck the violence' “'Doom' describes how certain psychedelic drugs can expand your senses while realizing that the world is going to end,” explains Neru. “Everything on Earth is made up of atoms that vibrate around us, and with psychedelic drugs you can literally sense that. I tried to capture that feeling in a song.”
She says that she actually dives into specific interests every week. “For example, I recently had a deep obsession with melanin and how the pigments in our body function exactly. I investigated the effect of different forms of melanin. I always try to look a little deeper: why is my skin dark? The dark pigment does not only serve to protect against UV radiation from the sun.”
“This record is for everyone. We're all sailing the same ship, and we're all controlled by something."
The Almanac actually sounds like a kind of musical variation on the well-known Expanding Brain Meme: the upwelling and the expanding ripple effect. 'Apple Of Antagonism' starts as a beautiful languid ballad, but halfway through it turns into a chilled trap song: 'Can we start over, rewind time to when we were strangers?' 'It's a love song that shows all the emotional complexities and stages. That's also the reason why the song changes shape so drastically: it starts with a plea to stay together, but suddenly it sounds distant. It sums up all sides of a relationship nicely.”
The song then ends with acceptance, because perhaps in another reality the relationship would have lasted. For example, each issue on The Almanac explores different angles: everything has cause and effect, everything influences each other in some way. A political system or poverty has an effect on how people treat each other, what people consume and in what living conditions people find themselves. Neru: "'Rxed xWxhite xBxlue (RWB)' is inspired by the pervasive racial injustices in America and around the world, especially in relation to police brutality and systematic repression."
Music offers Neru endless possibilities to understand the world. 'Dessalines Dissemination' flirts with Caribbean rhythms that float like ghosts above a tapestry of layered voices. The title refers to political leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who in 1804 led the Haitians through the first successful revolution of the slave revolt. "The Tzolkin (Writer's Block)" samples a quote from Alfred Hitchcock saying he was shocked that people took Psycho so seriously and that the movie was actually a big joke.
Neru: “A track can start with my personal experiences, my observations and my own fantasy. Then comes historical, intellectual and philosophical knowledge: theory offers me a creative outcome.” "The Tzolkin (Writer's Block)" is full of meta winks: the first verse wanders into a mumble rap, while in the second part Neru fires a stream-of-consciousness freestyle at the listener with the greatest of ease. “I wrote this shit on writer's block,” Neru then boasted. In a cunning and nonchalant way she reconciles deeper insights with the display of power of a boast.
The Almanac is a cryptic listening trip that breaks the fourth wall at the most unexpected moments. At the end, Neru playfully romps outside the framework of the 'album as a total concept' to which she first clung. The two bonus tracks 'C-Spine' and 'Rouge', collaborations with Deetranada and Ill Camille respectively, together form a kind of musical after credits scene. “I wanted to leave the listener on the edge of their seat with a taste of what my next project will sound like.”
That may seem a bit disruptive, but Neru wants to create transparency and leave something behind for every listener to think about. In short: an almanac with an unbiased vision for the future. “This record is for everyone. We're all sailing the same ship, and we're all controlled by something. And not everyone is brainwashed in the same way. Buzzwords like white privilege are used on all sides to impose a certain superiority complex. We all end up consuming the same contaminated food, drinking the same contaminated water and breathing the same air. I hope to offer only a hint of truth with my music.”
Neru The Fourth Fugee put together an extensive playlist especially for Front, which you can listen to below.
The Almanac is available on Neru's Bandcamp page .
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.