Album Review of "The Navigator" by Hurray for the Riff Raff


Why The Sudden Shift?

Puerto Rican-American singer Alynda Lee Segarra begins "The Navigator" the way she began her career--by honoring black and white American roots music. But then, something interesting happens in the middle of Track 5. Dive deep with host Bobby Waller to find out why this album changes midstream.

Genre: Folk

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Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff

Dive deeper! Learn more about Hurray for the Riff Raff, listen to The Navigator, and read other reviews of the album.

Listen to The Navigator


Album Review:
The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff

This is a transcript of Ep. 2 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here

Hi, everybody. I’m Bobby Waller, and this episode of What’s This Album About? focuses on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest album, The Navigator.

       ♪  One for the navigator, oh my girl
             One for the navigator, oh my girl

If you buy a physical copy of The Navigator, the first clues you’ll get regarding what this album is about  are in the packaging. The album cover features Alynda Lee Segarra—the lead singer and only continuously active member of Hurray for the Riff Raff—standing in what appears to be a theatrical set. This theatrical theming continues on the album’s insert, which  is designed to look like a playbill complete with a cast list and plot summary. Clearly, Segarra wants us to experience The Navigator like we would experience a musical play—from start to finish with emphasis on the story.

So let’s do that. Let’s look at The Navigator from beginning to end and find out what messages and meanings its storyline has to offer.

According to the plot summary, The Navigator chronicles the life of a protagonist named Navita Milagros Negron, nicknamed “the Navigator,”

       ♪  One for the navigator, call my Lord

a fictional character whose story arc bears considerable resemblance to the life of Segarra herself.

The album begins with a prelude called “Entrance,” which we’re hearing right now. It features an a cappella group, apparently recorded live on location, in an indoor setting that has a lot of natural echo. It makes me think of a doo-wop group singing in a New York subway.

       ♪  Two for the train that’s rollin’, won’t you get on board

It’s an intentionally retrospective sound that helps establish one of the album’s most important themes—the honoring of one’s roots. This implicitly New York sound is particularly significant with regard to Segarra’s roots because she was born and raised in New York—in a Puerto Rican section of the Bronx.

       ♪  Oh yes

The setting of The Navigator is never explicitly identified, but its resemblance to New York is undeniable and further strengthened on Track 2, the single, “Living in the City,” which is an expertly crafted homage to New York musical legend, Lou Reed.

       ♪  Mariposa’s singing love songs
             All in her dark apartment

Here we learn that Navita, the Navigator, finds life in the city difficult.

        ♪  Living in the city
              Living in the city
              Living in the city
             Well, it’s hard, It’s hard, It’s hard

Her dissatisfaction with the city continues on Track 3, another single, called “Hungry Ghost.”

       ♪  I’ve been a hungry ghost
             I’ve been a hungry ghost

Here Navita likens herself to a specter, barely visible in her native city but hungry, eager for change and ready to break free from this place that has kept her anonymous and unnoticed her entire life.

       ♪  I’ve been a lonely girl
             I’ve been a lonely girl
             But  I’m ready for the world
             Oh, I’m ready for the world

In Segarra’s real life, this readiness for the world manifested itself when she was seventeen and left the Bronx on her own, literally hopping freight trains, cross-crossing the country, and learning American folk music with her fellow travelers before settling in New Orleans, where she formed the folk rock wonder band, Hurray for the Riff Raff.

It’s interesting to note that Segarra has spent most of her musical life so far honoring black and white American musical roots. Take, for example, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s 2013 album, My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, which consists of two originals and twelve covers whose originators’ names sound like a “who’s who?” of American roots music—people like Leadbelly…

       ♪  Well come all you young fellas, oh don’t you wanna go

…Elizabeth Cotton…

       ♪  That’s why I’m going away

…and Hank Williams.

        ♪  I’m so lonesome I could cry

Segarra’s history of honoring black and white American musical roots is reflected in the first four and a half songs of The Navigator, which, as I mentioned include sonic references to doo-wop and Lou Reed—vintage black music and vintage white music—as well as a generally folk rock sound. And I say “four and a half songs” because something interesting happens in the middle of Track 5, “Nothing’s Gonna Change that Girl.” It starts off sounding like this…

       ♪ Oh but nothing’s gonna change that girl

They say nothing’s gonna change that girl

A fairly white-sounding ballad, augmented with horns and strings to give it a bit of a theatrical feel. But then, ironically, something does change.

       ♪ Before you blow up my night.

Right here!

        ♪ Oh, before you love me like that

Before you love me like that

It suddenly turns Latin.

        ♪ Before you love me like that
             Before you love me like that

That’s because in Segarra’s real life, she had a revelation. She has stated in interviews that, although she loved the black and white roots music she had been honoring most of her musical life, she realized she had been doing so to the exclusion of her own Latin and Caribbean roots.

The rest of The Navigator is a reflection of Segarra’s re-discovery of her Puerto Rican roots. The plot summary in the playbill-like album insert tells us that Segarra’s fictional counterpart, Navita, fell under the spell of a bruja (which is a magical practitioner, sometimes translated in English as a “witch”). Consequently, Navita, like Segarra, became a wanderer, leaving her native city  and returning many years later to find that her old neighborhood had been gentrified beyond recognition.

Probably the most rousing song on The Navigator is Track 8, “Rican Beach,” which decries the way gentrification robs people of their culture, their homes, and their sense of who they are.

       ♪  First they stole our language
             Then they stole our name
             And they stole the things that brought us fame
             Then they stole our neighbors
             And they stole our streets
             And they left us to die on Rican Beach

“Rican Beach” closes with Segarra repeatedly declaring her determination to fight for the causes of her people.

       ♪  I’ll keep fighting ‘til the end

But on Track 10, “Settle,” her resolve gives way to a certain weariness as she wonders how long her efforts to achieve parity will go unfulfilled.

       ♪  And I wonder how long I’m gonna settle, oh I’m gonna settle…

But then comes Track 11, "Pa’lante," the great climax of the entire album, and here’s where the theatrical bent of The Navigator really pays off.

       ♪  I just wanna go to work
             And get back home
             And be something

It begins small.

        ♪  I just wanna fall in line
             And do my time
             And be something

Segarra declares that her desires in life are modest. She just wants to be something—nothing grand, just something. Before long, her statements ending in the phrase “be something” turn into imperatives and we realize she is beseeching others to be something.

        ♪  Colonized and hypnotized
             Be something!
             Sterilized, dehumanized
             Be something!

Her exhortations disappear into a series of suspenseful chords, which give way to a more upbeat bridge…

       ♪  lately I’m not too afraid to die

..until eventually the music disappears altogether and all we hear is a poet…

 “dead Puerto Ricans who never even knew they were Puerto Ricans…

He talks about the Puerto Ricans who don’t even know they’re Puerto Ricans experiencing an awakening of their Latin souls,

       “And communicate with their Latin souls: Juan, Miguel…”

And then…

        ♪  From el barrio to Arecibo, ¡Pa’lante!

..the song’s original melody returns, this time with Segarra replacing the English “Be something” with the Spanish “pa’lante,” a Puerto Rican slang term that is a contraction of “para adalente,” meaning “forward.”

       ♪  To all who came before we say, ¡Pa’lante!

And so this drama called The Navigator closes with a simple fervent message. Don’t settle. Don’t be a ghost. Be here. Be something. And above all else, keep moving forward.

       ♪  To all who had to hide, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
             To all who lost their pride, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
             To all who had to survive, I say, ¡Pa’lante!

Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About? We’re a new podcast that brings you in-depth analyses of the lyrics of new musical releases, and you can help us move forward by liking, commenting, sharing, and subscribing. We’re at all the usual social outlets—FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to stay rooted. 

This episode is dedicated to Lynn Rams and Marcus Gallo-Lopez, whose lives personify the spirit of ¡Pa’lante!

The more you listen, the more you love.