With "For You," NANCE Focuses on His Most Important Audience: Himself

Prioritizing personal fulfillment over external validation, the Raleigh rapper sounds sharper than ever, and genuinely at peace.

With "For You," NANCE Focuses on His Most Important Audience: Himself

It’s somewhat irrelevant to NANCE’s new single, “For You,” but also not completely irrelevant, to state that my favorite social media trend of late has been a series of videos of a kid watching lights turn off

That’s it. He appears on screen, announces that the lights behind him will soon be turning off, and eventually they do. He then says, with admirably consistent gusto each time, “OPE! They turned off! Ohh-kay. Make sure you like and follow. Goodbye!” If you’re at all familiar with social media and the modern attention economy, you won’t be surprised to hear that this account, which uploaded its first post less than three weeks ago, now has 243,000 followers. (Super Empty’s account, which I’ve been carefully and laboriously tending to since January, has 610.)

Lights-off-kid is no menace — the massive popularity of his videos is arguably a demonstration of our gluttonous, non-stop content cycle, and the algorithms that power it, at their most wholesome and benign. But it’s hard to not see his stratospheric rise in a matter of weeks (recent partnerships: Top Golf, Texas Roadhouse, and the U.S. Air Force Academy), for something as simple as watching the lights turn off, as an uncomfortable reminder of the simplicity with which fame (at least of a certain kind) can be achieved in our social media-molded era of the Internet age — and subsequently, how hopelessly drawn many are to chasing it. From bogus YouTube business gurus to AI-generated music and art, modern life is awash in scams that promise a swift escape from the crushing pressures of capitalism. Shameless gambits for quick cash or notoriety are the expected norm, and there’s an ever-broadening understanding that it’s increasingly impossible to know if what we’re seeing or hearing is actually real.

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing, especially within a genre historically known for a certain amount of fake-it-til-you-make-it bluster and posturing, to see more rappers dropping the facade, turning inward and creating material out of their own insecurities and doubts, rather than trying to convince us of things that we may otherwise suspect to not be true.

The most prominent example of this last Friday was Rapsody’s long-awaited, deeply introspective fourth studio album, Please Don’t Cry. But also released, albeit to less fanfare, was the excellent single “For You” by Raleigh veteran NANCE, which in its own ways tackled many of the same themes: of identity, of acceptance, of the pitfalls of seeking happiness in external validation. Though it carries a similar sonic texture to his songs from years past (courtesy of production mainstay Fourth Shift), “For You” depicts an artist not only sharper, more focused and more original in his songwriting, but maybe most importantly, one who, after years of striving for satisfaction, is genuinely content.

While NANCE’s creative, outside-the-box marketing campaigns have regularly earned him some of the best awareness and recognition among indie emcees in Raleigh, the same couldn’t always be said in the realm of critical acclaim. Eight years ago, 25 years old, and considering myself some kind of serious authority on hip-hop, I wrote for INDY Week: “exhaustively comparing one pop culture reference to the next prevents NANCE from taking listeners anywhere emotionally or narratively,” and “almost every rapper today is taking notes from Drake’s blueprint, but the correlations on Everything I Need are overt and unavoidable.” I had nice things to say too, but when he laments on “For You” that the “local scene never embraced the kid,” I can think of at least one thing it may be in reference to. 

Undeterred, NANCE continued releasing singles, and last year returned to full-length albums with everydaydream, which saw the rapper embracing vulnerability and getting more personal than ever before — questioning, after years of rapping directly and indirectly about making it, what “making it” means after all: “Had to figure out my self-worth/ And I’m really worth it/ Even if the show goes on, it’s closed curtains/ To the man I used to be, truthfully/ I wanted to win so bad, but I was losing me.”

On “For You,” he dials into the same ethos of acceptance and moving beyond past versions of himself, with brooding lyrics like “press record, and I kill the old me,” and “Have to show what was meant for me, only to myself, only thing that matters.” Where the same pithy, smoothly staccato refrains might once upon a time been used for empty-calorie rap platitudes, here they cut right to the heart of universal, deeply human concepts like self-image and personal fulfillment.

With a dreamy, reverberating chorus that cleverly inverts the song’s title — ”Never did it for you, no, never did this for you” — NANCE rejects the validation of others as a motivating force behind his music. To some degree, it’s plainly a lie: like almost any other creative, his portfolio suggests plenty of art that was made, at least in part, with the external validation of others in mind. But rather than historical revisionism, it reads like a daily affirmation about why presumably, in the days before thinking about streams and downloads and shares, he got in front of a mic in the first place: to do something for himself. Amidst the various shortcuts and seductions of our gimmicky, algorithm-fueled, get-rich-quick world, it’s a reminder we all could use from time to time.

Here's hoping it stays top of mind for lights-off-kid, or at least his parents, too.


.zone in the gritty, subdued music video for "Flinch"

After a packed slate last week, it's been a bit slower on the new music front, but there were still releases of note:

  • Durham rapper/producer .zone from the Only Us crew released a moody but effective music video for his self-produced track "Flinch," which despite its relative simplicity, could very easily have been the visual treatment for a much more established act. The demeanor may be nonchalant and subdued, but .zone has no shortage of flows, or things to say.
  • The spirit of the Justus League is alive and well in Eternal the MC and OC From NC's new music video for "School The Whole Class" — on which the ever-curious Eternal's opening verse ranges from selling souls to Gaza to flimsy rap authenticity: "Your breath is wasted if you're livin' life adjacent/ to the bars that you're spitting, you won't even make my playlist." As usual, OC's verse is a show-stealer, similar to the one he dropped on Tab-One's "Heavy" in 2022.
  • Few weeks old on this one, but Autumn Rainwater's "OKAY!!" is a reminder that Cyanca isn't the only one out of Charlotte making smooth, crossover singing/rapping look easy. That's that Rainwater, baby!
  • LD Beats dropped off a new boom-bap-flavored beat tape called Duck You!, comprised entirely of sample flips from weekly challenges hosted by the Duckworld beat collective. The cover art is of a middle finger, but like, in a friendly kind of way.
  • Sarah The Illstrumentalist has a new beat tape out of her own — hardly taking a break from the Better EP released just a few weeks ago. Both are mostly bright, upbeat delights that when put on in the background, can only make a day, well, better.

Speaking of Sarah, you'll also find some of her work on...

Supe Of The Day: A Super Empty Playlist!

Go ahead, play (with) your food.

That's right, Super Empty may be a writing-first music venture, but in 2024, if you don't have a playlist... do you even exist? As far as this particular newsletter/digital outlet is concerned, that issue has been remedied with Supe Of The Day, a roughly two hour mix of mostly new NC hip-hop releases with a few oldies sprinkled in for extra flavor. There won't be wholesale revamps from week to week, but new songs will flow in and out regularly, so make sure to save whatever catches your fancy. And if you dig the format, don't keep it to yourself! More themed playlists could be on the way if there's the appetite for it. For now it's Apple Music only, but Spotify could be a future expansion too. Bon appétit.