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Jehnova’s style demands that he doesn’t court attention. After all, you can’t make cracked rap music to appease lords of darkness Hades, Palpatine and Earl Sweatshirt, and then smile brightly for the cameras. No, you must dedicate yourself to the life of an enigmatic figure, a ghost in the wild, a drifter fluttering between the margins and through the walls. Otherwise, you’ll look a bit weird.
You might already know Jehnova as a key lieutenant in NUXSENSE, a Dublin rap collective bound together by an appreciation for golden age hip-hop and a shared immigrant experience (Jehnova, like his cousin and NUXSENSE producer Sivv, was born in South Africa).
Since 2017 he’s been honing his craft by dropping tangential solo singles outside of the group. Early YouTube loosie “Striped Pyjamas” laid down a gauntlet: wavy synths, booming bass, keys that twinkle in the night’s sky, Jehnova rapping with clear diction as he exalts the virtues of skater fashion, passing the weed, and chilling with his crew. The video sees him skulking in the darkest corners of a house party, all guests mellowed by the music.
There’s “Eudaemon”, from 2019, named after the guardian spirits of Greek mythology – legend has it that Socrates had a daemon that stopped him making bad decisions. Jehnova’s opening question evokes the spirit of Snoop Dogg’s first solo single and sets the tone: “Who am I?” His subsequent answer includes claims that he’s a knight “looking for cheques”, a young “weedaholic” with a penchant for Nikes, a cyclops, a ninja, and just a guy hoping to buy his mother a big house. When the rapper spits, “I’ve been on my avante-garde shit,” Sivv introduces some tinkling freestyle piano to the beat, a neat piece of sonic invention.
Slowly building momentum, last year saw Jehnova release the more laidback lounge rap track “Weak Days”. Then came “ALL IN” and the kind of electronic riff that most emcees would struggle to wrap their head around. Jehnova’s got the flow – his rapping is dense and multifaceted, with syllables placed as deliberately as a chessmaster positioning his pieces. Plus, he has an instinct for an aesthetic that suits him. Deliver on his promise and next stop is global indie rap cred.
First, though, it’s Avenoir, released in April on andfriends records, a joint project with producer lod (that’s “Lod” stylized with a lower case “l” and not with an uppercase “i”). Though it’s slight at seven songs packed into 13 minutes, this is still Jehnova’s first multi-song project outside of NUXSENSE and represents the most complete sample board of his artistry yet.
lod proves a perfect foil. The producer has previously showcased his skillset on Dissolving Airwaves, a four-song EP of hazy R&B for getting buzzed on beer in the midday sun. (Sample song titles: “Dulcet Tones”, “Glow”.) Avenoir moves away from the buzzing California synths and instead evokes classic East Coast hip-hop – there’s boom-bap drum loops and prominent samples – but with a darker edge that alludes to a newer form of warped New York rap currently blazed by artists like MIKE, Caleb Giles, Slauson Malone and others.
Typically constructed out of just a handful of elements, the beats are svelte, yet grimy and atmospheric. You sense lod’s excitement to be working with a high-class rapper as the producer brings flourishes of jazz, soul and 1960s rock to the table, continuously feeding Jehnova daring elements to rap over.
“weekend” is a wild mesh of duelling sounds: a storm of ivory keys that could have come off the piano of Thelonious Monk, blissful strings and clipped vocal samples. The way lod mixes elements that should not go together is reminiscent of hip-hop’s most legendary crate diggers. It takes a highly developed ear to alchemise all this madness.
Through the intense beats, Jehnova just keeps rapping, like a man power walking through a snowstorm without breaking stride. His stream of conscious rhymes come across as internal dialogue being played out in real time. On “half”, he alludes to the voices in his head “filling me with fear, still my heart is very clear” before taking a minute to shout out Japan by rhyming “sake” with “Tamagotchi”. Soulful single “hwlcky” (pronounced “how lucky”) sees Jehnova ponder the grinding nature of routine before ending with a smooth assist from singer Uly.
The most complete song is the only one that stretches past three minutes. “ressa” matches a dreamy sample with hard-hitting drums. Jehnova uses looping rhymes to talk up his own rapping supremacy, calling himself an “old school vet”. Then with a steely intensity, his NUXSENSE brethren Luthorist comes out of the traps to drop a guest verse that does what a great guest verse should: smash up the landscape.
The briefness of Avenoir means it’s nothing like a definitive statement from Jehnova, but it’s music that sticks to your bones, functioning as a fine entry point to an ascendant rap cult hero right before he hits that next level. Jehnova did what he had to do: he made a great multi-song release. Now we’ll see if he can earn all due attention.