Courtesy of Milah Libin

February 7, 2019

Princess Nokia is Redefining a Genre

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Destiny Nicole Frasqueri — perhaps better known as Princess Nokia — released her Metallic Butterfly mixtape on Soundcloud back in 2014, but just this past December the artist reissued the work as a streamable album and expanded it, adding three new tracks. This bit of chronological displacement, however, induced me and other relatively new followers of the rapper to believe that it is her sophomore album and thus to compare it intensely to her “debut” album, 1992 Deluxe. Placing Metallic Butterfly beside 1992 Deluxe reveals an impressive consistency in thematic and imaginative scope, but it also exposes the former’s relative lack of tenacity in the delivery of Frasqueri’s socially transformative ideals.

Frasqueri herself offers some remarks about Metallic Butterfly that are helpful in interpreting the album. In a tweet about the album, Frasqueri wrote that “[Metallic Butterfly]’s visual and audio aesthetics were deep-rooted in anime, cosplay, witchcraft, feminism and cyber goth/rave culture.” All of these terms possess a certain connotation of intrinsic otherness to mainstream society and its restrictive notions of self-definition. Moreover, they suggest a certain deployment of imagination in the construction of different worlds or, better yet, the planning of what this world might be in the future. Princess Nokia invites us to do just that in the opening track of Metallic Butterfly, “Dimensia.” “This is the metamorphosis of the twenty-second century / Transmitting a higher frequency for the world to thrive on . . . On this planet, you are now released of all plague, hate and disease . . . It is time that you utilize your greatest potential before it is taken from you forever.” Frasqueri creates the grand outline of a future world in which devastating social woes, such as racial and gender hatred, sickness and war, no longer exist. Metallic Butterfly is the name of this world, but I think that it also hints at an individualization of the values that Princess Nokia specifies in “Dimensia,” with “butterfly” suggesting a transcendence and “metallic” signifying both the futuristic, utopian nature of these ideals as well as a personal hardening of the body and spirit as it reflects the blinding onslaught of the negative forces mentioned above.

Princess Nokia spends time in the subsequent tracks on the album filling in the details of her future world. In “Young Girls,” Frasqueri describes a place where mothers, sisters, and daughters are aptly considered the “patrons of the earth,” with this bit of ironic diction (patron stemming from pater, the Latin term for father) implying that the power inequities of heteronormativity are no longer observed. “Bikini Weather/Corazon en Afrika” features the artist claiming the African origins of her ancestry and, as she raps over an up-tempo, reggaetón beat, we might observe this as a postcolonial, celebratory link between the Afro-Latinx community and other members of the African diaspora.

Something that makes Metallic Butterfly so other-worldly is the way in which it imagines this future without relying on the institutions that currently perpetuate social hierarchies. During the second verse of “Anomaly,” Frasqueri raps “Listen, I don’t get political/Government reform, that’ll be a miracle.” This echoes the sentiments of academics like Justin Adams Burton who envision rap music’s role in human justice as hinging on its own position outside of dominant culture and its power structures.

Metallic Butterfly is poignant art, but 1992 is a true masterpiece. On that album, Frasqueri still possesses a view of distant realms sans bigotry and hatred, but instead of imagining it for the future, she lives in it now and expresses herself through its terms and conditions, creating a more rugged, hard-edged clash with social binaries. On tracks like “Bart Simpson,” and “ABCs of New York,” Frasqueri’s flows channel a fire-and-brimstone ferocity as she defines herself in ways that uphold and celebrate a number of hip-hop ideals. She is authentic, in that who (and what) we hear rapping is undoubtedly her, and as we experience Princess Nokia through so many fronts, rapping styles and personas, we witness a literal movement that is characteristic of hip hop’s great discursive space. During “Brujas,” perhaps the defining track of the album that explains Princess Nokia’s dynamic self-expression, Frasqueri identifies as a bruja, locating herself in a genealogy of women practitioners of brujería who are known for their ability to shapeshift in order to perform work that influences communities and their structures.

Upon a cursory listen of Metallic Butterfly, I was disappointed to hear that it doesn’t possess the same “bite” that characterizes 1992 Deluxe. We don’t hear much of Frasqueri’s rapping technique, and the music doesn’t comprise the sample-heavy, driven beats of 1992. Nevertheless, the concept behind Metallic Butterfly is provocative and performs much productive work in the spirit of social justice. I’ll eagerly await whatever direction Frasqueri decides to take her music in.

 

Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornellsun.com.