I first heard Nader Khalil through a Zoom party hosted by PC Music artist Umru in April of 2021. Nader appeared in a black jacket and sunglasses, his name in stylized Arabic script in the background. Opening up with a synth that replicated the Iranian ney-anbān, Nader sipped tea to music by Egyptian artist Rozzma and American rapper Playboi Carti before ending his set with his hard-hitting single, “Bassiani,” a reference to a club in Tbilisi, Georgia I happened to be writing about at the time. With squealing synths and brooding lyrics, Nader’s set was the standout of the night.
In 2014, the New England-based artist first gained popularity on SoundCloud as NOK From the Future, wearing masks to conceal his identity. These songs are proto hyper-pop, featuring collaborations with 100 Gecs’s Dylan Brady and playful lyrics about suburban life. His releases as NOK led to concerts in Japan and Germany and millions of streams. They were also artistically unfulfilling, and NOK disappeared in 2017. “I reached a point where I wasn’t happy with what I was doing,” Khalil said in an interview over Zoom. Protecting his anonymity had also become a burden and he sought to simplify his life. In 2021, he released a series of singles under his own name and began to incorporate his Egyptian and Iranian background in his music.
Now, with a pair of self-released EPs, Nader Khalil and Nader Khalil 2, in 2022, Khalil has cultivated a sound of his own. The first is a frenetic work of six songs in eleven minutes, recorded in Guadalajara. Featuring one-take vocals and Nader’s iconic ney-anbān synth, the EP is raw and exciting. Nader hoped to retain a primal quality in his music. “I like to simplify a feeling as much as I can sonically without losing the feeling itself,” he said. Songs like “Sinnerman” seem to distill a feeling of desire, while “Arab Way” unapologetically celebrates his Arab background.
The second EP leans even further into identity, with half the lyrics in Arabic. It opens with “Wahda Wahda,” which repeats the Arabic word for “one” over an increasingly dizzying beat. A translation halfway through is Nader’s gesture of accessibility: “You know, Wahda means number one in Arabic. Cause we feel we are number one, we are the best.” The taunting “Masakeen” recalls the chants of Nader’s high school soccer games in Kuwait, while the primal “Pura Vida” is the perfect hype song. There’s the dark lyrics and heavy bass of his first EP, but also a greater vulnerability as on “Dark Mawwāl,” Nader’s version of the traditional Arabic genre, which typically features slow and mournful instrumentation and purposefully sentimental vocals.
There’s also rage, as in “No Reason,” which invokes the wrongful imprisonment of Nader’s cousins in Egypt and subverts stereotypes about Arab men. In the lead single “War & Peace,” Nader addresses US imperialism in the Middle East, rapping, “No one forced you to war / I got no sympathy. / In the desert doing what? / Fuck your PTSD.” The video intersperses US drone strikes with clips of Arab youth dancing and footage of 9/11. Nader re-edited the video seven times before YouTube finally accepted it, finding issue not with the drone footage, but with images of injured protesters from the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Egypt. “In the drone footage you literally see the flash between life and death,” he said. “It’s actually crazy how visceral it is.”
Nader said record labels showed interest but failed to sign him, citing the political content of his work. “How is it political when I’m just writing about my life,” he asked. He’s since eschewed working with labels, preferring to write, record, mix, and self-release the music, outsourcing only the masters. Videos are often shot by his sister Nadia Khalil, who photographed the album artwork at a construction site in Massachusetts. “It’s been a DIY process from the beginning,” Nader said. “From the music, graphics, videos, and everything in between.”
This approach is encapsulated by an anecdote from 2019. Post-NOK, Nader was inspired to travel to Kuwait, where he hoped to learn the original ney-anbān, which he described as having “joy and sorrow in its sound mixed together.” Although his family is from Southern Iran, where the instrument originates, he was unable to find an instructor. “I was told it’s an instrument that’s taught tribally, passed down from one generation to the next and not taught to outsiders,” he said. While Nader taught himself piano and guitar, the ney-anbān was a different beast. His digital emulation of the instrument in “Pura Vida” and “Wahda Wahda” is Nader’s attempt to recreate the tone and mood in his own way and the source of the propulsive sound that drew me to his work. “It was just something born out of necessity,” he said. “It made me figure out how to capture this sound that I love on my own.”