The cover of Nardo Says' new record, YSDM, features a tight focus on his face, engulfed in a pitch-black background, brows wrinkled and mouth slightly open. His expression is tough to unpack: it's a bit confused, maybe slightly miffed, a little "are you serious?"
As far as album covers go, it doesn't fit any familiar tropes, but that's part of its power. Listeners don’t know what to expect once they hit play. That knack for risk-taking and ambiguity is part of what makes Nardo such an unexpected, if underappreciated, voice in Pittsburgh's hip-hop scene.
The facial expression is Nardo's answer to the album's title, which stands for "You still do music?" — a question he is asked frequently, probably too frequently. He's been writing and recording music for more than 20 years, both in his home commonwealth of Virginia and for the past few years in Pittsburgh. His last release before YSDM was in 2015, but he's constantly producing and writing and making featured appearances on other artists' tracks. (His vocal contribution to Mars Jackson and Nice Rec's "Sunrise" is not to be missed).
And yet, he still gets it: "You still do music?"
Some ask because they want to hear what he's been working on, but sometimes there's an undercurrent of surprise, like he should have moved on by now. And to be fair, he's not the most vocal self-promoter. After finishing YSDM, Nardo posted on his Bandcamp, and aside from a few social media posts, that was the extent of his marketing. If you weren't skimming for new local releases on Bandcamp in the past month, YSDM was easy to miss.
But YSDM deserves fanfare. From the open-ended cover art to the instrumental jazz piano solo that opens the album ("Nothing"), it's littered with satisfying surprises and unexpected pivots. "Still Funky," the first proper track after the intro, starts with a minimalist drum-bass beat, but by the end has dipped into the sort of vocal-heavy, neon funk that you might expect from a Parliament sample.
"Days Go By," featuring Mars Jackson, is an unrushed nostalgia trip, with a laid-back beat and major chorded synths coloring the verses. Nardo's singing on this one is unforgettable, and it pairs perfectly with Jackson's charisma and nonchalant delivery. "If I Was You" starts in the vein of old Saul Williams, all high-energy and raucous drums, before pivoting into a slow-burning funk jam for the song's second half. It's unpredictable, unpolished, and hard to turn off.
"Mistakes were made naturally," Nardo writes in the album's liner notes, and that's a big part of the album's appeal. There's nothing egregious or super obvious, but there are moments throughout when it feels slightly unhinged, and that's not accidental.
"I like my music to have mistakes," Nardo says. "Humans, we make mistakes, we are not perfect, so I feel like that should [be reflected] in the music. There are mistakes in there. People may not notice, but at the point I was finishing it, I was like, 'You know, man? I've been doing this for so long, this is something I love to do. I’ve been creating since I was a child. I'm trying to get back that child-phase, that fun-phase where I don't care about [mistakes] no more.’”
That sense of vulnerability comes to a head on the album's closer, "Well Did I Stutter?" in which he opens up about his stutter and the accompanying struggles as a rapper or singer. The chorus: "Did I stutter? /Oh, yes you did /But I know just what I want to say but it don't really work that way."
"I don't think there's ever been a hip-hop song that talks about [having a stutter],” Nardo says. “A lot of people have it. James Earl Jones used to stutter, and a lot of people like me are still dealing with it as an adult. People take for granted being able to effectively communicate, that's important."
YSDM is full of surprises like that, whether it's in song structure, production style, or the clarity and vulnerability of Nardo's lyrics. The album might be flying under the radar, but these eight tracks reflect an artist pushing himself and his collaborators towards something new and challenging and satisfying. It'd be hard to imagine audiences not taking notice.
In the meantime, he's developing a business that sells all-natural deodorant, looking to book shows for YSDM, working on self-promotion, and fleshing out some of the songs that didn't make the cut for YSDM.
Nardo is still making music.