Princess Nokia’s “ABCs of New York” at first seems built on a simple gimmick. “A is for the apple, take a bite and spit it out,” raps the 25-year-old rising star. “B is for bodega, eating on your mama couch.” It’s a list song, a nu-“10 Crack Commandments” or “Alphabet Aerobics,” rendering America’s biggest city in adult nursery-rhyme.
But as the track unspools over a laid-back keys loop, the seemingly rigid format begins to break down. By the letter “G,” for “ghetto girl,” Princess Nokia is going off on half-verse tangents—“rainbow clothes / Baby hairs and well-done toes / Single mothers carry those bummy sneakers / What are those?” When she moves to the next letter, it’s casual, unannounced; only afterwards do you realize “H” is for “Hunts Point.” Now instead of her foisting the A-B-C concept on the listener, the listener’s trying to find alphabetical meaning in her free-form journaling. In the final verse, the letters are swirled together, out of order. But “X” is unmissable: “Livin’ in the city, you can never be a xenophobe.”
The way that song grabs attention with a simple idea and then complicates it, enlivens it, and gives it a little political charge is typical for Princess Nokia. She’s one of the most fascinating new forces in music because of how she strikes a balance between high-minded concepts, social specificity, and the playfulness that only hip-hop can afford. Last year’s self-released EP, 1992, is now available on streaming platforms with eight new tracks, essentially making it a full-fledged album: 1992 Deluxe. It’s a great debut, teeming with the same kaleidoscopic possibility as the city she hails from.