Album Review: gnash’s ‘we’

The L.A. alt-rapper's debut full-length highlights his compassion and sincerity, but also his weaknesses as a musician and songwriter.
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Gnash's we
Atlantic Records

Artist: gnash

Album Title: we

Label: Atlantic

Release Date: Jan. 11, 2019

Garrett Nash is nothing if not sincere. The 25-year-old L.A.-based rapper and DJ, also known as gnash, has made a name for himself with his unique brand of bittersweet, confessional backpack-rap. His songs speak to the anxiety and self-doubt that plagues millions of teenagers facing the daily grind of high school and all its toxicity. And they’ve won him legions of devoted followers. Even now, several dozen of them are probably blasting his and Olivia O’Brien’s 2016 breakout hit “I Hate U, I Love U” (or perhaps his remix of MAX’s “Lights Down Low”) on their iPhones, forgetting how terrible the world is for a while. And that’s great. He has found his audience.

There’s just one problem: Nash’s music is terrible. He’s a hopelessly sentimental lyricist who thrives on a gratingly cutesy aesthetic, and the weak, syrupy production value of his tracks only drags them down further. His debut full-length we–stylized in lowercase letters, as Nash insists on doing for every album and song title and even for his own stage name–highlights his sincerity and compassion, but also his weaknesses as a songwriter and musician.

Within the first few tracks, Nash’s sweet, lovelorn persona wears out its welcome. Opener “Happy Never After” is a painfully-obvious examination of how Hollywood films set up unrealistic expectations for our relationships. “True love doesn’t have a happy ending,” he chirps, “‘Cause when it’s real, it doesn’t ever end,” he chirps, “If I did a rewrite, would I change a damn thing? / Would I flip the script or would I do it all again?” That’s the kind of lyricism we’re dealing with here.

And it only gets worse from there. Just take a look at the chorus of “T-Shirt,” a loves-labors-lost lament with an ethereal guitar-driven backdrop that sounds eerily like a contemporary Christian worship song. “I gave you love and all you did was leave first/ Then you told me that I shouldn’t be hurt/ I tried to hide it, but it couldn’t be worse…I’ve learned karma tends to be a b-word / So I hope you get everything you de-serve/ You broke my heart and all I got was this t-shirt.”

Nash packs every song on we with this type of flashy, loop-de-looping (but ultimately substance-free) rhyme scheme. This is crass, embarrassing, amateur-hour stuff. It makes Ed Sheeran’s extensive discography of sweet nothings seem like divine wisdom. It makes Jason Mraz look like GG Allin. You find yourself longing for the subtle, nuanced flows of post-2004 Eminem.

His voice, whether singing or “rapping,” ranges in timbre from “wounded childlike rasp” to “slightly louder wounded childlike rasp” as he drones on about his anxieties, fears, and failed relationships. The characteristically unimaginative beats typically consist of happily-strummed guitar or ukulele chords with tolling piano, pseudo-hip-hop drum tracks, and bland, poppy atmospherics. But once in a while, he’ll augment a big finishing chorus with a bunch of synth-horn blasts and glockenspiel notes and explosion noises because he likes to have fun.

All this goes on and on for 40 interminable minutes. On “Wait,” he deals in dreary “wait”/”weight” wordplay as he begs the love of his life not to leave him. The truly awful “Pajamas” is about how people are mean and the world sucks and he really just wants to stay at home and I think you get the idea. “Dear Insecurity” finds him attempting to work up his self-esteem by addressing his own mental illness as if it was a person. That premise works as an exercise you’d do with your therapist, but certainly not something you put over a precious Starbucks-ready guitar track and release for widespread consumption.

If this was all a huge put-on—if the whole thing was just some sort of weird performance art piece and Nash was deliberately writing sad-sack teenage poetry and setting it to bad music—it would merely be mildly irritating, maybe even a little amusing. But as it stands, Nash is the kind of guy who sing-raps things like “I wonder if the trees think we’re all greedy / If the air thinks we’re all crooks / If the water thinks we’re too needy / If the sun gives us dirty looks” without a shred of irony.

Then we come to the big hit “I Hate U, I Love U,” which is inexplicably crammed into the album’s final minutes. In addition to being a depressing, piano-heavy breakup slog that even O’Brien’s serviceable vocals can’t rescue, it’s also a decent summation of everything bad about gnash’s music: Watered-down production. Lukewarm performances. God-awful metaphors (“Now all my drinks and all my feelings are all fucking mixed”). Artlessly spat-out word salads–with the occasional “fuck” or “shit” tossed in for good measure–masquerading as “alt-rap.” The distinct air of a privileged white kid with piles of money, access to a recording studio, and lots and lots of feelings.

If I come off as harsh here, it’s because I, too, have suffered from chronic anxiety and depression for much of my life. I can relate personally to many of the feelings and sentiments expressed on we. But I’ve also discovered scores of musical works that address the same topics with grace, dignity, and a modest sense of humor. Like Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, as a recent example. Or Paramore’s After Laughter. The Cure’s Disintegration, perhaps. Or literally any song by the National. That being the case, hearing gnash play to the cheap seats with his “Aw, c’mon, y’all, why can’t we all just be nice to each other?” schtick is frankly offensive. I have no use for it.

Besides, I’m not really that concerned about hurting the guy’s feelings. He has the sound of a gazillion adoring fans–the din of myriad fingers tweeting out links to “Pajamas” with the single word “MOOD” and a few crying emojis–to drown out my vitriol. I don’t need him, and he doesn’t need me. We suit each other perfectly. Wait, did I just write a gnash lyric?

Rating: 2.0/10

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