Hurray for the Riff Raff may be based in New Orleans, but the folk-blues and Americana band’s The Navigator is steeped in the sounds of the Bronx, frontwoman Alynda Segarra’s hometown. A concept album following a young Segarra proxy named Navita as she embarks on a loosely charted journey toward self-discovery, it’s both intensely personal and inherently political.
The Navigator evocatively captures the essence of the streets of New York’s increasingly gentrified outer boroughs. “Well, you can take my life/But don’t take my home,” Segarra mourns on lead single “Rican Beach” over a danceable percussive beat that she melds with her usual trad-folk songwriting style. The militarized, segregated city she’s singing about may be fictional, but it’s understood as a stand-in for places such as Baltimore and Ferguson.
Through personal introspection, Segarra arrives at a broader awareness of the political and cultural tensions that grip her homeown. “First they stole our language/Then they stole our names/Then they stole the things that brought us fame,” she sings on “Rican Beach.” “Pa’lante,” which takes its title from a newspaper published by the Puerto Rican activist group from the 1960s and ’70s called the Young Lords and features a snippet of poet Pedro Pietri reading from his famed “Puerto Rican Obituary,” is even more explicit in tackling the Puerto Rican experience in the United States.
In order to underscore Navita’s cultural awakening (namely, embracing “the visions of all who came before,” as Segarra puts it in “Living in the City”), the album draws from an eclectic musical palette. Previous Hurray for the Riff Raff efforts have been immersive forays into archaic Appalachian folk music that are as affecting and authentic as they are monochromatic. The Navigator, on the other hand, embraces a wider musical heritage. The percussive Latin beats that drive “Rican Beach,” the title track, and “Finale” are just one among many on an album that mixes disparate genre elements: The title track’s Latin-jazz rhythm is juxtaposed surprisingly successfully with a swelling, romantic string section and Segarra’s soulful, cooing vocals.
The album remains coherent despite opening with male doo-wop singers and featuring a woozy barroom folk sing-along (“Life to Save”) sequenced immediately after a squealing post-punk barnburner (“Hungry Ghost”) and just before a lush ballad (“Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”). On such a stylistically zig-zagging album, it’s only fitting that, between the latter two, “Hungry Ghost” makes the comparatively better use of strings, which accent the song’s rumbling groove with scraping dissonance.
As fully realized as The Navigator is in terms of theme and timbre, Segarra’s simple, repetitive compositions aren’t always sturdy enough to support and match the ambitiousness of the album’s genre-bending arrangements. “Hungry Ghost” lacks the raging chorus it needs to achieve the full-throttle release it seems to be aiming for, while “Settle” doesn’t progress much beyond its exotic orchestral riff. As such, it’s the songs with less fussy arrangements—the ones that don’t disguise their underlying folk leanings, like the aching two-minute lullaby “Halfway There”—that end up being the most memorable.
The Navigator’s bellwether, though, is “Pa’lante.” Both a self-actualization anthem and call to arms for cultural awareness, the song features little more than Segarra singing over a few piano chords, a stark platform from which she can espouse a clear-eyed crystallization of the album’s themes. “Do your best/But fuck the rest/Be something,” she declares, before offering impassioned, throaty solidarity to a laundry list of comrades, loved ones, and lost souls—“the ghost of Emmett Till,” “my mother and my father,” and “all who came before” among them. Like the rest of The Navigator, it’s not exactly a political manifesto in the traditional sense, but it compels action nonetheless.