*Photo credit: Ryan Marshall
By: Kevin Crandall
The emergence of the Twitch livestream as a vessel for creativity and ingenuity has given creatives unparalleled access to instant feedback and reaction from others—fans, trolls, and fellow creatives alike. Dev, aka Pink Navel, has championed this platform, using their Epic Club streams (as lovingly referred to by them and their audience) to game, take calls, make beats, and freestyle while receiving real time feedback and love from dedicated fans and mutuals. Birthed from this practice, EPIC is remorselessly cyberspace; a revolutionary live-recorded set woven with renegade declarations and web culture bars that animate their own cartoons as they leave the Massachusetts emcee’s mouth.
Bubble-popping synths and growling syncopation define the production that Dev deploys throughout this album. Each song slides into the next to the point that if you aren’t paying too close attention you’ll entirely miss where one ends and the next begins. Grounding every beat is a bass, snare, and cymbal coated so heavily in dust that you start seeing in sepia tones every time you hear it. The crown jewel of Dev’s style, however, is their masterful sampling. Every track begins and ends with a flurry of vocal samples taken from seemingly every form of virtual speech—from TikToks to interviews to movies to games— that aid in the seamless transitions between tracks. The internet has many facets, and Dev mashes them all together at once, creating a composition whose movements are distinguished primarily by their bookending samples.
Web-savvy and unapologetically epic, Pink Navel bombards their syncopated, sample-littered rhythms with precision and the munchies. Danny Phantom, Pokémon, My Life as a Teenage Robot, Lilo & Stitch, Dragon Ball Z—the virtual childhood of anyone who spent the 2000s a foot from the TV screen as the sprawls of the cartoon multiverse etched their place in history and our minds. Dev visits them all within their bars, utilizing these shows as stepping stones to voice their own braggadocio as well as ink their pen with their passions and influences. While other rappers might name drop a cartoon or shout out their favorite anime here or there, you would be hard-pressed to find one who does it with the frequency and veracity of the webmaster Pink Navel.
Delving further underneath the veil of animated lore and “bars to pass time” (as they rap on DANNY PHANTOM) is the idea of a Black, non-binary rapper living their life and doing what they love to do—rhyming and embracing cyberspace. Dev’s flows are as fluid as their gender, refusing to let their rhythm be knocked by a world that too often bares a brute lack of basic human decency. They raucously shout that they are “Black, Blackity Black” (spittin’ like Allen Payne in CB4) on DIY TWITTER, and slyly discuss how amazed you are that they “rap the way with fluid gender” on GRATEFUL BARD. The most radical action an individual can take is being themselves, and EPIC is just that. The music is a proclamation: Pink Navel is Black, queer, and fucking epic.
Pink Navel is an internet guru, and as such is well-acquainted with an essential vessel of creativity and community within the webspace: YouTube. They reminisce on the importance of the video platform to their life, name dropping more YouTubers on ZE FRANK than original Super Smash Bros characters. The hook is a fervent and repetitive incantation of “I am the only rapper who knows Ze Frank,” an adamant claim of fandom and love for the videographer and public speaker who rose to fame through various comedy and pop culture vlogs such as the show and a show. The most striking part of this track, however, is the discussion of Blackness and internet fandom that occurs over a couple of bars in the middle of the third verse. Dev cuts the instrumentals as they somberly rap “with my deepest respects say rest peacefully Etika,” mourning the young, Black YouTuber who committed suicide in 2019 after struggling for years with mental health problems. They then continue solemnly, empathizing with the late YouTuber and plainly stating that “being Black while liking all this stuff, it ain’t too easy.” Dev knows the struggles of being Black and being a web culture fanatic—two identities that should never be juxtaposed, yet constantly are. The heartbreaking end of Etika’s story, as well as the respects Dev pays to the late YouTuber, add sorrow and grit to their proud declaration as Black and enthusiastically virtual within EPIC. Being oneself can be arduous and even deadly, but Pink Navel refuses to let that fear dull their passion for the various online universes they love dearly.
The first commercial internet service provider launched in 1989. Thirty-two years later, the first live-recorded album of Pink Navel’s career was released. EPIC was birthed over the course of a year, but its creation was decades in the making. From cartoons to YouTube sensations to revolutionary concepts, Dev embodies core tenets of the virtual world, and with that has produced an album that will live forever within its hallowed networks.