Columbus rapper Nova sees the light on ‘He Exists’

The MC takes a spiritual turn on his heartfelt new album, which he’ll celebrate with a release show at Victory’s on Friday, March 29.
NovaCourtesy the musician

Nova has never shied from embracing religious imagery in his music, estimating that roughly 80 percent of the songs he’s recorded over the course of his career contain some element “of a spiritual nature,” as he described it. The Columbus rapper traced this instinct to his upbringing in the Baptist church and the powerful sway the biblical imagery he absorbed as a child continued to hold into adulthood. 

But with new EP He Exists, which Nova will celebrate with a release show at Victory’s on Friday, March 29, the musician’s religious allusions are increasingly purposeful, his rhymes injected with a deeper, more carefully cultivated meaning.

“It was like, let me just take everything off of the table and really dig into this whole narrative of God and what I actually believe and want to share,” said Nova, born Justin Durnell, who will be joined for the release show by opener Vada Azeem. “I wanted to take the braggadocio out some, you know what I mean? And I wanted to talk about something I haven’t really talked about, and something that’s been growing in my heart quite a bit.”

Rapping alongside Homeboy Sandman on “Soul,” Nova speaks of battling demons and his desire to be born again, rhyming over a crackling, gospel-infused beat. “Escapism, this music was vacation/It helped me through all the phases and stages,” he raps. “Where my soul felt truncated and caged in/I just wanted liberation.” Elsewhere, the MC pines for a return to simpler times when our identities weren’t so connected with the public image we offer up on our devices (“Wilderness”), unpacks the leap of faith required of his recent awakening (“Open Book”) and strives to be a better example for his children (“yhvh,” featuring an assist from Taelor Gray).

A father of two, Nova credited the birth of his oldest son, now 2-years-old, with helping to kickstart his recent spiritual reassessment. Having a child, he said, introduced the motivation to want to make the world a better place, and he quickly embraced the idea that any change initially had to come from within.

As a means of finding some early footing in this journey, the rapper started reading the Bible – a book of which he had deep awareness but had never fully absorbed. “My grandma was the church secretary, so she would drag my brother and I to church every Sunday, but I hated it,” he said, and laughed. “But even being dragged to church, you hear that preaching day in and day out, and it becomes part of you.”

In many ways, the five-song He Exists unfolds like a Sunday sermon, with early tracks borrowing heavily from the scriptures, Nova sharing that he initially challenged himself to turn out verses that explicitly referenced the Good Book. “When I started writing, I wanted to be able to pin most of the [verses] to scripture, like, I got this directly from reading the Bible, almost like a psalm,” Nova said. “But then it kind of veered from there.”

The rapper pointed to a number of reasons for this pivot, including a desire to not have the album turn into a dryly academic exercise. But primarily he said that he quickly came to understand that an album centered on the battle for his soul would also require him to set foot in the confessional. As the tracklist progresses, in turn, the rapper opens up, delivering more personal, inward-searching rhymes about fatherhood and forgoing alcohol – essentially channeling a preacher in the midst of a fiery homily in the way he shares his lived experiences and then connects them with the Gospel.

“There were a couple early joints that didn’t make the album because they just felt kind of dry. Like, the rhymes were dope, but [the songs] felt like they were missing something,” said Nova, who opens the floodgates on the album-closing “yhvh.” “When Asher Roth came to town, I opened and I performed that record, and I’m not gonna lie, I dropped a tear onstage, like, whoa. And it caught me off-guard. But talking about my son and stuff really hit me. And that’s what I want.”

Along with this revelation, Nova shared that the music has started to take on a different intentionality. When he started writing and recording, he said he desired little more than to prove he was the best rapper in the world – a motivation that has more recently turned outward.

“I wanted to write raps where it would be like nobody writes like that, and I didn’t care what I said … as long as people wanted to quote it, and as long as I got accolades and recognition,” he said. “And I still want to be the best writer I can be, but it just switched to where I’m not going to say just anything. I want to be more mindful. I want someone to hear this and want to be a better person. … I want to be building instead of destroying.”

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