A Google search for Velvet Negroni, the musical alias of Minneapolis-based artist Jeremy Nutzman, will likely pull up a rather distinctive picture. Shirtless, in a low squat, he has the sleeves of a hoodie pulled onto his legs to serve as pants, the hood hanging down in front of his crotch. The fashion choice has the same weird and effortless cool as the music on “NEON BROWN,” Velvet Negroni’s second release, and likely one of the most original projects of the year.
The buzz surrounding Velvet Negroni has been steadily building since the release of his first album, “T.C.O.D.,” in 2017. In a now somewhat mythical moment, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver played a song from the album at Kanye West’s writing camp for the upcoming “ye.”
The song, “Waves,” wound up playing an essential role in the opening track of Kanye and Kid Cudi’s collaborative project, “Kids See Ghosts.” Since then, Nutzman has netted multiple features on the new Bon Iver album and a string of appearances opening for Tame Impala — including back to back shows at Madison Square Garden — and is establishing himself as one of the brightest lights in a Minneapolis music scene bursting with talent.
Adopted into a strict, religiously conservative family, Nutzman’s creative outlets were determined by his parents’ sense of righteous propriety. He was given rigorous instruction on the piano and competed as a figure skater, but was forbidden from exploring secular music, let alone writing or performing it.
He sees this restriction as having a fundamental effect on the music he began writing after moving away to college. “The time when music is supposed to be the most impactful and exciting is when I was getting the least of it,” he told Fader. “Which lends its way to how I write and interpret things.”
The songs on “NEON BROWN” certainly have a unique relationship with the styles that have helped shape them, blending elements of R&B, dub, trap and several decades worth of pop into a sound that’s endlessly surprising.
Like many of his contemporaries, Nutzman is making music that brings into question the usefulness of sorting artists according to genre. The album playfully nods to this idea with a song titled “KURT KOBAIN,” which sounds more inspired by Tears for Fears and the Police than anything remotely close to grunge.
Nutzman created the record with a pair of local producers, Tickle Torture (Elliott Kozel) and Psymun (Simon Christensen), and both artists make distinct contributions. The sounds of the two make a pleasing contrast: Tickle Torture creates sugary, hard-grooving jams, obviously inspired by ‘80s rock and pop, while Psymun composes finely textured songs that are interesting without being bombastic.
The latter producer’s fingerprints are all over some of the best tracks of “NEON BROWN.” His dense yet understated style is what powers songs like “CONFETTI,” a taut stroll that seethes with the cool, sensual menace of an arthouse version of The Weeknd.
Many songs on the album simmer, rarely spiking in volume or tempo, yet maintaining a gripping intensity, sometimes for five minutes or more. This plodding, smouldering vibe is becoming something of a specialty for Christensen, and is the driving force behind an excellent tape he made with another Minneapolis-based artist, the vocalist Dua Saleh, on which Nutzman features.
This subdued tone leads to satisfying payoffs throughout “NEON BROWN,” in the moments when a song’s production suddenly erupts or Nutzman jumps into a trappy cadence, as at the end of “NESTER,” a masterfully paced song that feels justified in stretching to over six and a half minutes.
The album isn’t defined by its sparser songs though. Tracks like “POSTER BOY” and “WINE GREEN” bounce along, apparently a bit more inspired by Tickle Torture than Psymun. Tunes like these share some DNA with acts like Toro y Moi, blending pop music with something a little more indie, to create a sound that’s slightly quirky but still thoroughly danceable.
Nutzman is by no means the product of his collaborators. Besides participating in the development of much of the music, he contributes a flexible and unusual voice, equal parts absurd and expressive. On first listening, some of his vocals can sound silly and childish, like the interjected “la la” lyrics on single “WINE GREEN,” but these melodies quickly prove to be earworms. Elsewhere, his voice is sultry and aching, as on the hook of “U.DUNNO,” or straight up sinister, as on “NESTER.”
Lyrically, the album strings together a semi-coherent blend of irreverent non sequiturs and genuine reflections on Nutzman’s past and present. There are references to the repressive religious experience of his childhood, with the singer dubbing himself “already God forsaken” on “CONFETTI,” and some allusion to his sobering up from the hard-partying lifestyle that colored , “T.C.O.D.”
But these lines will give way to the singer riffing about “reading Playboy magazine in braille,” or how he “bursts in flame like it’s Waco.” Often the words feel more like Nutzman’s playthings, as he stretches and slurs them, sometimes leaving a phrase half formed, then accenting a word with deliberate diction.
Altogether, “NEON BROWN” is a beautiful oddball of a record. While it’s possible to identify many other artists in Nutzman’s sound and persona — the detached, f—ked up cool of The Weeknd, the off-kilter electronic experimentation of FKA Twigs, the always-kind-of-erotic aura of Prince — none of these associations come close to obscuring how original Velvet Negroni is.
It’s exciting that the album is only the project’s second release, and is already showcasing Nutzman develop a distinct and innovative voice. Considering how well connected he is, and how much time he has to continue growing, there’s no telling where Velvet Negroni will go in the coming years. Wherever it is, he’ll definitely be the first one to get there.