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Okay Kaya - Both Music Album Reviews

Okay Kaya - Both Music Album Reviews

King Krule collaborator Kaya Wilkins escapes music-industry servitude and speaks truth on her own terms in a frank, often melancholy bedroom-pop debut leavened by diaristic sarcasm.

Kaya Wilkins’ debut, released under her moniker Okay Kaya, is the soundtrack to a state of limbo where identity, feelings, and sexuality continually shapeshift. The defining qualities of Both—ardent lyrics and vocal melodies that lend a soulful dimension to angst—have long been linchpins of Wilkins’ work. It was these gifts that led her to a partnership with HXC Recordings a few years back. During that time, she laid down tracks whenever she could squeeze in some studio time and suffered the indignities of being a young woman in the music business. An urge to speak truth on her own terms spurred Wilkins to discard two years’ worth of songs made under corporate servitude and retreat to the safety of her Greenpoint apartment, where, over the course of three years, she recorded the majority of Both.

The gloomy atmosphere of Okay Kaya’s early HXC singles, like “Damn, Gravity” and “Clenched Teeth,” drew comparisons to the work of her eventual collaborator, King Krule (whose frequent producer Rodaidh McDonald also worked on “Damn, Gravity”). These releases have an ethereal feel: Their minimal guitar lines echo over spare beats as Wilkins’ lyrics weave intricate tapestries of uneasiness, her voice bobbing lightly above the noise.

Both preserves the beguiling vocal melodies of Okay Kaya’s HXC era, but the polished poetics and calculatedly offbeat styling have disappeared in favor of more unguarded material. No longer satisfied to make music designed for heavy coffee-shop rotation, she has entered the more intimate and experimental world of bedroom pop.

Her first album thrives on oversharing, and diaristic sarcasm brings self-awareness and emotional intelligence to Wilkins’ thoughtful ruminations on melancholy and the many mundane activities it braids itself into. “If I ever get a dog, Imma name it hindsight,” her doubled voice repeats over warm synths on “Hindsights a Bitch.” Electronic elements like the beat on this track add another new facet to Okay Kaya’s sound, which features production assistance from Wilkins’ boyfriend, Porches’ Aaron Maine.

“Habitual Love,” the record’s most infectious bop, is an off-kilter motivational anthem about summoning the strength to pull yourself out of a rut. Wilkins comes across as wise and confident for much of the song: “Who wants to be loved out of habit?” she asks. “I want my love to be magic.” But when the sensual beat drops out at the bridge, it’s like the floor has crumbled beneath her, and she plunges into uncertainty. Wilkins’ tone often varies like this within individual tracks, accentuating the spontaneity of her candid lyrics and imbuing her music with the immediacy of an artist impatient to get bottled-up frustrations out of her system. Instead of performing on cue in the studio, she was free to jump out of bed at four in the morning to record a vocal if inspiration struck—and it shows in the intimacy she creates on the album.

With a total runtime of 37 minutes, Both isn’t a long first effort, but it is one that could have benefited from more editing. On “French Press Girl,” the record’s most puzzling inclusion, Wilkins falls into a familiar singer-songwriter trap, neglecting melody in favor of emotional earnestness. Deprived of the catchiness and wit of the album’s other songs, the track feels unstructured, incomplete, and incongruous.

But excess is embedded in the very title of Both, a debut defined by conflicted feelings and Wilkins’ self-aware sense of humor about them. She describes the subtle but all-consuming sadness that keeps you stuck in your room, unable to open the door. She brings the unexpected happiness of a smile that emerges through tears. She captures the kind of restless melancholy you can only dance your way through. She knows that misery and horniness aren’t mutually exclusive. For Okay Kaya, “both” is a way of life.

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