Trying to get a handle on Princess Nokia’s music is tricky. Maybe that’s the way she wants it. She is a master of reinvention, begininng her career as sort of an R&B singer named Wavy Spice, before finally settling into an uneasy detente with rap as Princess Nokia (a name she takes from the brand of cheap “Obama-phone” she was eligible for as a low-income earner). Even to try to define her rap style is an exercise in futility, though.
She is a self-described “hoodrat,” “bruja,” and intersectional feminist who relates to Marvel Comics (because they have more characters who look like her), and tomboy who likes baggy denim as much girly dresses. Her eight-song full length from last year, 1992, is her attempt to service all of those identities, and fuse them into a hodgepodge musical style that is all her own. In that it largely succeeded.
The deluxe re-release of 1992 tries to add extra flavors to the original’s musical melange by adding eight new tracks, and though the increase in output is a net gain, the results are somewhat mixed, calling to mind the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”
From the low-key, reflective intro, “Bart Simpson,” 1992 is a confessional exercise in oversharing — and that’s not a bad thing by any means. Nokia rattles off a relatable list of activities that define her formative years, instantly endearing herself to anyone who may have been a class misfit. “Rotten apple to the core, Damn, I been a f*ck up / Getting picked for last in gym, I can’t even do a lay up / Writing on my sneakers, Being sneaky with my teachers / Smoking weed under the bleachers, Cutting out and glueing pictures,” is a middle school itinerary that many can place themselves in, ironically linking the “weird” kids as a de facto tribe of oddballs and setting the stage for her grander insights into society, community, family, and self-expression.
“Kitana,” “Tomboy,” and “Brujas” remain intact on the deluxe version, forming the philosophical core of Princess Nokia as an artist, as well as 1992 as an album; each song is an unquestioning demand for respect in a world that often finds ways to diminish women by default. Kitana was the kickass female ninja from Mortal Kombat II, who would juggle combo your ass right across the screen and into a waiting pit of spikes before you could land from her first uppercut; it’s clear why Nokia relates, and links the character thematically with “Brujas” or Latinx witches. Nokia’s “don’t touch my hair” diatribe against shaming women of color for their hairstyles/choice to wear a wig/weave/extensions is “Mine,” re-sequenced to continue the through-line of tough, takes-no-nonsense femininity.
It’s in the new additions where the album breaks down a bit, becoming hit-or-miss in its new execution. “ABCs Of New York” is Nokia’s mostly unnecessary foray into ‘90s-style NY boom-bap rap, but she’s at her best and most confident when she eschews the crate-digging rules of old. “Goth Kid” reveals another aspect of her personality, but doesn’t warrant its own track — either it’s too distinctive and deserves a larger platform, or its relatively straightforward beat and rhyme scheme don’t do enough to distinguish it as a departure from her usual smorgasbord of personalities.
Likewise, the remainder of the back half of the album, including “Receipts,” “GOAT,” “Brick City,” and “Flava,” finds Nokia trading in her trademark quirk for rather well-trodden material that sounds like just about anybody could have done it. Where the first half of the album contains her own unique style and insights, the newer material sounds like one long Cardi B impression, which Nokia gives every indication of being above on standouts like “Excellent.”
The girl power anthems that drive “Tomboy” and “Brujas” turn into stereotypical battle raps and braggadocio on “Receipts,” and “GOAT.” Even weirder is the vocal switch she pulls right around “Goth Kid,” going from her slightly manic, sing-along flows to a low-tempo, forced faux-bass bellow that only highlights her relative weakness as a lyricist. She’s not a bad rapper per se, but the new, trappy singles demand skills that she just hasn’t quite mastered yet.
1992 flashed real potential in 2016 for the Black hipster, Afropunk set, who naturally gravitated to Nokia’s proud weirdo aesthetic. While Nokia was never really going to impress a certain type of rap fan, she was carving out her own lane and creating something distinctive, unusual, and decidedly her own. She expanded on her skillset with the deluxe release, and it’s never a bad thing when an artist wants to hone their craft.
It’s just that a “deluxe” version of the same album when she could have simply released the eight new songs as a separate EP winds up settling for lateral movement instead of real artistic growth. After all the reinvention she’s done, Nokia shouldn’t be afraid to take the same kinds of risks that got her here in the first place.