Hurray For The Riff Raff’s The Navigator actually shares a number of commonalities with Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s a concept album in the most complete sense of the term. Its creator is a fierce independent woman with a confident creative vision. And most poignantly, it’s a statement piece made by a member of a marginalized community that, while important for outsiders to hear, is best understood by the people within it.
But these two works differ, of course, in their themes. Whereas Lemonade’s micro issues dealt with romantic infidelities and its macro perspective illustrates the continued inequality regarding race relations in America, The Navigator focus on an individual’s quest for autonomy within the context of this nation’s history with (and current conflicting opinions about) immigrants and immigration rights.
In this case, singer/songwriter/frontwoman Alynda Segarra addresses the Puerto Rican community and her experiences as the child of immigrants. But while The Navigator was surely inspired by Segarra’s own experiences growing up in—and then running away from—the Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan, the record tells a story through the perspective of fictionalized character Navita Milagros Negrón. Depicted like a musical and separated into two acts, the first half of The Navigator establishes Puerto Rican traditions and heritage. The second half illustrates a dystopian vision of what happens when gentrification, assimilation and segregation destroy that land and that culture.
Segarra conveys these themes brilliantly through her music. And unlike Lemonade, which is about as pop as pop music comes, The Navigator comes across as more experimental, especially compared to Hurray For The Riff Raff’s earlier folk-rock work. Segarra places extra importance on drumming on this record, and the five percussionists use congas, bongos, bombas and a trap kit to conjure native island rhythms. Songs like
“Hungry Ghost” feature floating synth lines and effects-addled strings that convey our urbanist, digital society in rolling waves of 1s and 0s. Conversely, the lack of instrumentation on tracks like “Halfway There” and “Fourteen Floors” creates a vacant atmosphere like the sonic equivalent of a razed building in the gentrified city.
But the greatest success of The Navigator, its complete conceptualism, is also its biggest hinderance. Such strict adherence to theme (from the songs themselves to the Playbill-like design of the liner notes to the map Segarra drew to illustrate Negron’s journey) makes it hard to listen to the record selectively or disruptively. For example, while musical framing devices like the introductory “Entrance” and concluding “Finale” are vital to understanding the work as a whole, they’re less-than-gripping as individual tracks. Songs such as “Pa’lante” showcases Segarra’s arresting vocals as her protagonist offers dedications to contemporaries and eulogies to those who trailblazed before her, but seem like a strange choice for a single without greater context.
As an album, The Navigator’s musicality—both the melodic nature of its songs and its musical-like structure—highlight Segarra’s raw talent and growth as an artist. But if she set The Navigator to stage, like a slightly rockist sequel to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, she might have even greater impact and success.