Navy Blue: Ways of Knowing

Family runs deep in the life and music of Sage Elsesser. In the eight years since he first began sharing songs on SoundCloud as Navy Blue, his relatives have maintained a constant presence: glimmers of light amid his sparse, brooding compositions. On Ways of Knowing, his major-label debut, Elsesser draws them into the foreground and leans on their wisdom as he navigates life as an adult. The loops remain hypnotic, the bass lightly funky. But the murkiness that defined much of Elsesser’s early work gives way to the understated confidence of a man who draws strength from the roots of his family tree.

Elsesser pushes those roots deeper as he reaches toward the sky. Messages from the ancestors weave between lessons learned from lovers. His confessional style—honest and open, never sentimental—makes him sound mature beyond his 26 years. How does a young man achieve such clarity? Ways of Knowing reveals its source: a family that nourished him spiritually, while providing him the freedom to grow, learn, and make mistakes. 

“Pillars” is the cornerstone of these themes. The song zooms in on brief moments with Elsesser’s grandmother: a daily kiss on the forehead, the sight of her late husband reflected in her grandson’s face, fresh flowers laid on her grave. Their connection recalls fond memories, which lead to the acceptance of their inevitable farewell. It’s here we see the clearest signs of growth. No longer content to dwell in darkness, this Navy Blue finds joy in solemnity. When he offers a glimpse into the wreckage of his real-life relationship with the model Binx Walton on “The One” and “Fall in Love,” he lays bare his flaws and insecurities, looking back not with regret, but with hope for a better future. It’s as if he had his mother in his ear in the booth, reminding him that “expectation presents grounds for disappointment.”

More than any of Elsesser’s other records, Ways of Knowing carries a worshipful tone. Not of any particular deity—even the Yoruba Orishas he references are less gods than guiding spirits—but that of the self, the ancestors, and the threads that link them. He finds an attuned collaborator in producer Budgie (best known for The Good Book, a multi-volume collaboration with The Alchemist) and his trove of obscure gospel and R&B records. Budgie’s production across Ways of Knowing is elegant and focused, its textures subtle, with flourishes that occupy the periphery, lest they distract from the message. Even his smoothed-out ’90s R&B loops sound spiritual, like the quiet storm melody from Mike Davis’ album cut “Call Me” that he loops for “Chosen.” And, in a last-minute addition to the credits, Frank Ocean collaborator Om’Mas Keith—whose contributions to Blonde memorably became a subject of legal dispute—is also named as a producer on several tracks, and plays piano on “Freehold.”

It all makes for a gorgeous record that’s subdued without being sleepy and cerebral without becoming a third-eye word salad. Elsesser’s words carry the weight of wisdom—some his own, from a life lived passionately, but most passed down from his ancestors. Rhythm from his father, a Rastafarian drummer; perspective from his grandfather, who instructed a young Elsesser to read Frederick Douglass to understand the plight of his people; the tenderness of his mother, whose words encourage him to love himself; and the nuance of vanity from his grandmother, who raised a family full of artists, models, and style icons. It took all of them and more to create Navy Blue.