Our April music roundup turns to the latest albums by queer rapper and producer Yaeji and queer Americana artist Joy Oladokun.
Yaeji | “With a Hammer” | XL Recordings |
When Yaeji started releasing music in 2017, her first two eps carried a casual, even artisanal air. Rapping over her own house music-inspired production, her voice was relaxed and soft. Her lyrics alternate between Korean and English. Even her visual presentation seems friendly and warm. The video for one of her most popular songs, “Drink I’m Sippin On,” showed her riding a bike around Manhattan’s Chinatown and hanging out with friends in the neighborhood. Her YouTube channel includes a series of vlogs in which she makes food, plays with her beloved dog Jiji, and unboxes packages from her father in South Korea.
While she moved up to the large indie label XL Recordings with her disappointing 2020 mixtape “What We Drew,” she’s finally released her far more impressive debut album, “With a Hammer.” If her early music could readily be labeled hip-house, she’s harder to pin down now. That choice reflects a confrontation with the impact of racism against Asian-Americans, the bullying she experienced as a child, and her feelings of neither being entirely American and Korean.
“With a Hammer” is far less chill. “Fever” begins with her singing “fever/it’s so yellow” over a monotonous synthesizer, which runs unchanged through the song, and goes on to ponder “why are we the ones to always apologize/why are the ones to make ourselves smaller.” Crucially, these lines are delivered in Korean.
Many songs are downright jarring. Yaeji flows faster and more urgently, while the drum programming resists settling into a groove. Her vocals, synthesizer and percussion don’t always line up neatly. The album’s most striking songs find a middle ground between the mellow and anxious. Their textures suggest a trip to a thrift store stocking children’s instruments, yet the trumpet on “I’ll Remember For You, I’ll Remember Me” alludes to Miles Davis. “Be Alone in This” floats in clouds of her overdubbed vocals, without percussion. “With a Hammer” speaks from a different space than the instantly accessible music Yaeji started out making, where avant-garde experimentation still resembles a form of pop.
Joy Oladokun | “Proof of Life” | Verve/Republic | April 28th
The range of Joy Oladokun’s influences is evident from the guest list on her third album, “Proof of Life”: country star Chris Stapleton, Houston street rapper Maxo Kream, the rock band Manchester Orchestra.
All the same, Oladokun flirts with a bound-for-adult alternative radio excess of politeness, like Grammy favorites Black Pumas, Brandi Carlile and Jon Batiste. Still, “Proof of Life” music is bright and hooky, with appealingly direct lyrics. Even on her independently released 2016 debut album, “Carry,” her interest in pop was evident, although she also looked back to the singer/songwriter tradition. You can hear both Tracy Chapman and Elton John in her music.
On “Proof of Life,” we hear Court Clement and Ian Fitchuk’s guitar playing rings with blues and folk influences, while the backing vocals draw on R&B and gospel. Going back to “Carry,” Oladokun has used a string section to flesh out her music. Booming, artificial-sounding drums don’t add much to her songwriting.
Oladokun’s blend of styles is immediately recognizable, capable of being both anthemic and spare. Many of her songs are aimed at a younger version of herself, addressing the dilemmas of an alienated Black, queer teenager. Her music draws on the traditions of several genres, but its personal focus brings something new.
That said, most of the collaborations on “Proof of Life” are its weakest songs. For “You at the Table,” Manchester Orchestra turns in a treacly melody. “Revolution” falls far short of living up to its title, with production that buries electric piano under overly loud drum programming. Maxo Kream’s verse is fine, but it sounds so out of place on the song that it may as well be a sample. “We’re All Gonna Die” utilizes an ironically upbeat arrangement to ponder overwhelmed resignation, with a lifeless verse from Noah Kahan. On a higher note, Chris Stapleton’s vocals on “Sweet Symphony” help turn the song into a yearning rock ballad.
Fortunately, Oladokun’s solo tracks make up the difference. Her lyrics share the introspection that’s been part of the singer/songwriter tradition, but they also reach out for solace and community. “Friends” and “Somebody Like Me” yearn for real emotional support from friendship. Like many queer artists, she grapples with the baggage of a religious background without rejecting faith altogether. (More than once, she cites Jesus and weed in the same breath.)
She’s blunt and plainspoken, open about her vulnerability and constant questioning: “I don’t think it ever ends/This feeling that you’ll never win.”
“Changes” wrestles with the helplessness doomscrolling induces: “And people still don’t understand/What it’s like to hope again and again knowing/That heartache’s gonna be there ’til the end.”
Even when she declares herself a revolution, she wonders whether she was born too late, but “Proof of Life” ultimately ends on a satisfying note.