When we are young, we ask our parents about 300 questions a day. As we grow up, we learn to live in a world of answers. Each question allows only one right answer. Not knowing it, evokes the shame of a red mark on a failed test. In other words: a defeat.
We come out of school and we feel we know everything, yet something is still missing. “Sometimes one feels incomplete and is only young”, writes Calvino in The Cloven Viscount (“Il Visconte Dimezzato”). Becoming an adult means exploring that void and discovering what is missing. What unwritten path awaits us, outside the known tracks. In this, then, going in search of the right questions.
For this reason, calling a disc ???? is a courageous and revolutionary act—an extreme synthesis that claims to be thorough. We are talking about the new album by Nicolaj Serjotti, produced by the inseparable Fight Pausa and out now with La Tempesta Dischi. Born in 1998 and raised between Busto Garolfo and Legnano, the hinterland rapper wants to take his music far beyond the borders of the Milano 7 (2020) we all know. To do so, he gives shape to that darkness that gives him no peace and relies on Christian Kondic’s photography to illuminate it, while Filippo Elgorni and Riccardo Orsini made it come to life (Sbagli, Whats Good). Together, they forge an alien and alienating world in which Nicolaj’s texts come to life.
In the middle of a field, at late night, the rapper is forced to look himself in the eye and carry the heavy luminous image of his face (110L). A public image, which sometimes illuminates and sometimes blinds. An image from which he sometimes escapes, to take refuge in the enveloping darkness of a cave (Sbagli, “Mistakes”). But it is also a panorama to look at from above, to regain an overall view. Again, however, at the risk of becoming nothing more than an easy target (Sparami, “Shoot Me”). Shadows and lights, up and down, as in a lift in the middle of a forest (Come OK, “How OK”). Which in turn, perhaps, is part of a shopping mall. Where, then, is the truth hiding?
RSS: It is inevitable to start with the title. Why is the album called ????? We often lack the answers, but what happens when we don’t even know what the (right) questions are?
NS: I don’t exactly know why it’s called ????. I could create a meaning for it in retrospect, but I believe that it is the fact itself that I can’t justify it that makes it the right title. It seemed natural not to look for another one, as it summed up something I couldn’t put into words. So I actually do lack an answer here, maybe because it’s a record that revolves around questions, or maybe because I don’t even know if they’re the right ones. Sometimes I solve this dilemma by not asking myself anything at all.
RSS: This album is first and foremost about you starting to get serious. But that more than a platinum record, you would like a whole island in Fiji—or a street named after you. Does that mean fewer symbols and more reality? How much does people’s judgement matter to you?
NS: We worked on ???? for two years, exchanging ideas and artistic visions with Fight Pausa, travelling around Italy with Christian to shoot thousands of photos, and seeing how such a long and multifaceted process translated into a digital outcome left me with a strange feeling. So actually yes, it does mean more reality, I do have the ambition to include more reality into my work. And not by abstracting from the dynamics of what music is today, but rather by adding elements that can enhance the three-dimensionality of my project. As far as external judgement is involved, I would say that it interests me, but it doesn’t influence me too much, since I have a clear vision of where I am and where I want to go.
RSS: We have been still for almost two years, but it seems we have learned nothing. We have relapsed into the contemporary imperative of always doing and never stopping. Welcome back, dear FOMO. Why is it important to have “time to waste time”? Are you in a hurry to “get there”?
NS: Even though I’d rather not, I am in a hurry to get there, and sometimes I am scared that I might even not get there. I don’t know where, and I think that’s the point. But I have to admit that now that ???? has come out I’m more relaxed, I feel like a manifesto of who I want to be as an artist finally exists, and I hope that this will give me the opportunity to find more time to waste time. I would like to experiment, without setting deadlines and without the idea that everything must be finalized. I think that wasting time can be important, as it allows us to understand who we are when we relate to nothing. More or less.
Ho speso quasi metà dei miei migliori anni
Su questo pianeta a commettere sbagli
Ora sto solo cercando di dimenticarli
I’ve spent almost half my best years
On this planet making mistakes
Now I’m just trying to forget them
RSS: Sbagli (“Mistakes”) is an unintentional eulogy of error, which becomes almost a generational anthem. We grew up thinking that we had to follow a linear path, possibly always growing. But falls and changes of direction are inevitable. What has been your biggest mistake? And when did making a mistake get you to the right place?
NS: This is difficult to answer because I don’t think I’ve ever made a deeply wrong choice. At least so far. Sbagli (“Mistakes”) is more about small daily details, about how I behave with other people and with myself. It is about a structural way of being, which is consequently difficult to change. I am not bothered by all the little mistakes I’ve made in life, since on a general level I can say that I’m in that right place you are talking about.
RSS: What is your relationship with the you of the past? Have you been able to forget? And to forgive yourself?
NS: I feel like I’ve already lived several lives within my lifetime, probably like most people. It’s hard for me to perceive something I did last year like it’s still mine, it seems absurd that I have taken certain decisions, but at the same time it doesn’t weigh heavily on me. However, I don’t forget anything and I don’t forgive myself, even if it sounds contradictory. I actually tend not to forgive in general, I think I might be a little sensitive? I’ve been told I’m nicer on stage than in real life.
RSS: There is a piece in which you quote Watching Movies with the Sound Off by Mac Miller. What does it mean to you? What would you like to steal from others and what do you have that is absolutely unique (that others should want to steal from you)?
NS: In my early years of high school I would spend hours memorizing that Mac Miller record, even though I didn’t fully understand it. For me, it’s a go-to, a record I listen to by default when I don’t know what to listen to. It’s the soundtrack of my trips with no destination. I like to think that I wouldn’t want to steal anything from others, not consciously at least, and that I don’t have anything unique that others should want to steal from me. I’m trying to create a universe tailored to me in which I believe and hope no one else would fit.
Se rimango in silenzio
Ho paura che tu senta quello che penso
Ho paura che, ho paura che il mondo non resti lo stesso
Sinceramente speravo in qualcosa di meglio
If I remain silent
I am afraid that you will hear what I think
I’m afraid that, I’m afraid that the world won’t stay the same
I honestly hoped for something better
RSS: What did you expect better? And what, instead, do you still expect?
NS: I expected to be recognized as the best rapper in Italy, by the time I turned 23. And I still expect to be recognized as the best rapper in Italy, sooner or later. It might make someone smile, but I’m serious about it. If you don’t expect at least that, why do you do it in the first place?
RSS: Compared to Milano 7 (2020), ???? is a more disillusioned record. But the absence of certainty becomes almost liberating. And the resignation to chaos, an openness to what is yet to come. “Se vuoi ne parliamo ma non adesso” (“We’ll talk about it if you want, but not right now”). Do you think we should stop trying to control things? Or is some determinism necessary to believe and commit?
NS: Last year I would have told you that if you stop trying to control things they will surely get away from you. In music, I’ve always tried to have everything under control, and I still think it’s important to know what’s going on both on the artistic side and on the contractual side of your project. However, lately I’ve realized that if you rely on others and don’t go crazy over every detail, things still work, eventually even better.
È questo buio che mi inghiotte oppure sono io che lo alimento?
Is it this darkness that swallows me up or am I feeding it?
RSS: In the record, the four question marks seem to take shape in a series of open questions. Did you eventually find some answers too? What is, ultimately, the real question?
NS: I didn’t find any answers, or maybe I did and I just didn’t realize it yet. I find myself thinking mostly when I talk to someone else: my thought process is quite impalpable, I have never understood how to think to myself with words. The real question is when to start writing the next record, to open up more questions to be left unanswered. Soon.