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Empress Of - Us Music Album Reviews

Where Lorely Rodriguez’s debut album brought a refreshing dose of weirdness to the crowded field of alt-pop R&B, her follow-up is more of an anodyne amalgam of 2018’s pop trends.

Me, the first album by Lorely Rodriguez’s project Empress Of, was an astonishing debut. In a supercrowded field, Rodriguez’s production distinguished itself with all-too-rare menace and oomph, like the constant mallet hits of “Kitty Kat,” or the sumptuous electro-house grotto of “Water Water.” Making an alt-pop R&B album in 2015 (or any time in the past decade) is kind of like starting a fast-casual cronut chain in 2013, but listening to Me, the unlikely happens: The trend doesn’t seem trendy.

Us differs from its predecessor in two ways. One’s in the title—where Me was entirely self-produced, on Us Rodriguez enlisted outside producers and songwriters like Dev Hynes, duo DJDS (Kanye West, Khalid, Kacy Hill), Cole M.G.N. (Ariel Pink, Christine and the Queens) and Spanish producer Pional (remixes for Chairlift and the xx). The other way’s in the interviews; as Rodriguez told Pitchfork, she wanted an album that wasn’t “as emotionally isolating as [Me]”. Less emotionally isolating, in music, usually means “happier,” and “happier” means “poppier”— more palatable, fitting more nicely in more playlists. Me wasn’t not poppy, but it wasn’t formulaic. There’s trop-house on “Standard,” but it’s been pulled apart like a carcass. “Threat” is a dance track with a drop, placed at the precise second the drop goes, but the drop is distorted, exuberant, menacing, weird.

Very little on Us can be called weird. If you were a music supervisor in 2040, commissioning a stock soundtrack for a movie set in 2018—the exact amalgamation of sounds that’d root audiences in this year—it would sound a lot like this. Me, despite frequent reductive comparisons to Grimes or FKA twigs, was singular. But Us practically begs for comparisons—and comparisons to more formulaic artists. The inspirational soul-pop of “I’ve Got Love” recalls recent Kelly Clarkson. “Timberlands,” in its winsome delivery and Daria-like eye-rolling, could be an Alessia Cara song, and its chorus launches into those pitch-shifted vocal squiggles that are ubiquitous from Kygo to Calvin. “Love for Me” and “Just the Same” are the dancehall/house/synth puree that radio labels “trop-house.” The latter adds a pinch of “Lovefool”—a blend so hyper-specifically reminiscent to this exact moment it might as well have come from a radio study involving microseconds of listening time. (Since Mitski’s “Nobody” exists, it isn’t even the first “Lovefool” rip in the past few months.)

The lyrics, too, are simpler, and deliberately so: “A younger version of me would try to mask a lot of stuff by being dreamy,” Rodriguez told Pitchfork. “Sometimes people can be uncomfortable by how direct my lyrics are [on this album].” And sure, directness is great. There’s just a line between directness and telling versus showing, and lines like “I don’t even smoke weed, it gives me anxiety” fall on the wrong side of it—particularly given the metronome-stiff 4/4 delivery of the melody. Other lyrics are just cliches: “Feel like I’m on the outside looking in”; “Eating out the palm of your hand.” Others are retreads: “Tear my clothes off like I was a paycheck,” from Me, is a great and oft-quoted line, and it’s almost heard again on “Just the Same”: “I want you on top of me like a paperweight.” The repetition almost renders the first track less impressive, like both songs came of flipping through the P’s in the dictionary.

Rodriguez is an excellent songwriter when she’s on her game. The bilingual “Trust Me Baby” genuinely does sound direct, though Rodriguez’ plaintive delivery does as much for that as the lyrics. And Dev Hynes-assisted “Everything to Me” is in another class entirely, a story of friendship captured in fleeting snapshots of characteristically New York moments: “Drinking beer out of the bag, watching cars and yellow cabs”; “Everyone on the roof is in bathing suits, but there’s nowhere to swim.” Crucially, Rodriguez leaves the tension to subtext and to the instrumental: a synth track that prickles with an unsettled melody, or Hynes’ uneasy harmonies.

This attention to detail is welcome, and Rodriguez and her co-producers do as much with the pop template as they can. An airhorn shows up halfway through “Love for Me,” as if to herald the arrival of a newer, more bracing track (albeit one that doesn’t come). “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” dedicates a good chunk of its runtime to a synth-organ solo. “I’ve Got Love” adds a frenetic acid-synth underpinning and gives it arrangement little pauses and trail-offs that beg to be drawn out more. When tension slips in, it’s generally for the better. “Again” is a fairly standard ballad, but its sleepy expanse and dreamy melody are welcome amid the MOR. The drama of “All for Nothing” is even more welcome: a stormy dispatch from a troubled relationship set amid squalls of sawtooth synths, pained vocal runs, and an almost hymn-like bridge. It’s the closest track here to Us—but compared to “Water Water,” it’s more like a breeze in a puddle. It’s frustrating, really: a hugely talented songwriter and producer, thwarted by trends. Best-case scenario, they’ll let her find a larger audience—and money and license to once again reach Me’s heights.

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