On “Reset,” the opening track of How To Capture Playful, by rapper Pink Navel and producer Kenny Segal, Navel invokes the rogue-lite, a genre of game in which defeat sets the player back to the title screen, forced to start again from the beginning, but this time armed with the knowledge of that defeat, and with a fresh chance to play. Some rogue-lites have a final boss and a reachable ending, but many just have more randomly generated levels, endless depths of difficulty and ever-soaring heights of skill. Rap, for Navel, is the latter: a lifelong pursuit with a ceiling capped only by the scope of the artist’s imagination. “The more you know it gets you farther/up until the inevitable reset of the yonder,” they say of that ever-receding horizon.
How To Capture Playful is an exercise in expanding imaginative space, and as the title suggests, it’s also a guide to the listener, a kind of tutorial towards the pursuit of play, and the joy that comes with it. This pursuit is not always easy. Play is something we lose as we age, and are increasingly subjected to the demands of adulthood. Play is often posited as the opposite of work, the antithesis of responsibility, the refusal to take things seriously. Video games in particular are often stigmatized as escapist fantasies, digital worlds we can slip into to momentarily forget our pain. Navel examines this very real allure on “Synergy:”
The synergy of pain and playing, they heighten each the same
I do my day, complete my duties, work and then escape
Controller on my thigh while sipping second IPA
I do it everyday applying hours played rises into triple digits
Fix the schism, a guide on how to keep the rhythm
It’s this keeping of the rhythm that’s the key, and in a world where people are so often punished for any decision which isn’t made for the pursuit of financial gain, finding joy through playing music or playing games becomes a subversive act.
How To Capture Playful is not the first project to make the link between video games and rap explicit. MCs like Mega Ran and Sammus have been working in that lane for years now, but Navel’s project is among the most expansive in scope, the most complex in it’s relationship to the source material and the depth of meaning that it’s able to conjure.
Indeed, the link between games and rap goes way back. “Blip Party Chat” opens with a vocal sample of a Tik Tok in which a man at Walmart is asked to choose between video games and black history. “Video games actually is a part of black history, if you think about it,” he responds, dismantling such false dichotomies. Video games and rap share a kind of parallel artistic evolution, inexorably linked to new technologies of production and representation, coupled with the subversion of those technologies as creative users find ways to break the systems, to turn the equipment to their own ends. Both have built communities around that act of repurposing to build new modes of expression.
For his part, Kenny Segal continues to run up his high score on the indie rap production leaderboards, using those very same repurposed technologies to evoke the digital spaces Navel inhabits. Segal has clearly logged his own hours amidst the various generations of video game soundscapes, and he brings out a wide variety palettes to match Navel’s breadth of vocal styles. From the framerate-drop chops on “New Tech,” to the cavernous pads on the tenderly sung “Maps & Navigation,” to the flaming dungeon synths on “Boss Life,” the production feels both experimental and also strangely familiar.
Though “Boss Life” and “Present Vendor” reference specific games, and “Character Select” conjures an entire Pink Navel extended universe, How To Capture Playful seems to suggest that what’s important is our relationship to whatever games we choose to play. Navel takes us through the inexact fidelity of reminiscence on “Memory Card,” and through the strategy applied to a life of making art on “Tilemap.” In the end, we might return to the beginning, to the final lines of “Reset:” “Captures many codes to crack/Cracking up a tiny glitch to find just like, a bit of rap.” The music is there, in the places where the fabric of the game begins to fray, where a resourceful player can find a foothold, and leverage that into what just might be their best run yet.
Pink Navel plays at Kelly’s Olympian with Onry Ozzborne and Torbjorn on November 1st. Get tickets here.