If you were a viewer of Japanese variety shows around 2005, you likely noticed a man dressed in fluorescent camouflage who looked very much out of place in the parade of poised stars and goofy comedians. Nigo was then a Japanese designer in his mid-30s but he looked more like an American rapper, down to the chains draped around his neck and the grills he wore in his teeth. Though he wasn’t yet a household name in Japan, his clothing line, A Bathing Ape, was making waves in the U.S. thanks to early adopters like Pharrell Williams and Clipse (Pusha T’s ongoing feud with Drake can be traced back to Lil Wayne wearing a BAPE hoodie on the cover of VIBE in 2006). Right around this time, Nigo launched his first serious attempt to pivot to music, the hip-hop group Teriyaki Boyz. He served as the group’s DJ and svengali, assembling a crack team of Japanese rappers and calling in favors from friends like Daft Punk, Ad-Rock, and DJ Premier. The group’s Def Jam debut was a modest success in Japan but the mostly Japanese-language album predictably failed to break through in the U.S.
Nearly two decades later, having cemented his legacy as one of the most influential streetwear designers of all time (“Bape is my generation’s Chanel,” the late Virgil Abloh once said), Nigo is giving music another shot. This time around, the album bears his own name—his first international solo release since 2000’s Ape Sounds—and he’s enlisted Pharrell to serve alongside him as co-executive producer, as well as a rotating cast of A-list rappers. The bulk of the production on I Know NIGO! is credited to Pharrell and the Neptunes, with a few additional producers filling in the gaps; the beats are as sturdy and tuneful as you’d expect but not as adventurous as you might hope. As for Nigo, his role in creating these songs seems to be similar to that of James Lavelle’s role in Unkle (incidentally, Lavelle put out Ape Sounds on his Mo’ Wax imprint): not as much a musician as an ideas guy with a deep Rolodex.
Nonetheless, Nigo and Pharell manage to produce a largely enjoyable and consistent compilation that recalls DJ mixtapes of the mid-2000s. If nothing else, the standout tracks are worth seeking out. While it’s not quite “Potato Salad,” “Lost and Found Freestyle 2019” demonstrates that Tyler and A$AP Rocky have chemistry to spare; both here and on the album closer, “Come On, Let’s Go,” we’re reminded that Tyler is incapable of phoning in a verse. Just as noteworthy, “Punch Bowl” reunites the Thornton brothers with the Neptunes for the first Clipse track since 2019. While No Malice admittedly sounds a bit rusty, it’s oddly heartwarming to hear him spit lines like “My Chingo Bling meet me at Dulles” alongside his brother. Pusha T also gets a solo turn on the Kanye West-produced “Hear Me Clearly,” which feels of a piece with his last few years of reliably great solo work.