This piece was originally published on the 1st of September 2015 by The 405.
“Can I get up off my knees, and find a rhythm of my own?” It’s an entirely rhetorical question, some necessary bile flung towards the stifling and unfulfilling partner of ‘Love Myself’, the seventh track on Lorely Rodriguez’s debut album as Empress Of, Me. It’s also, thematically speaking, one of the most significant statements to be found on a record that’s largely preoccupied with the process of finding one’s own rhythm.
Entirely self-produced, and conceived during a month of self-imposed exile in Mexico, Me was an intensely personal project for Rodriguez, one wrought from the extensive introspection that comes as a natural by-product of prolonged isolation. Each track is informed by specific memories and experiences, and whether she’s exploring various romantic relationships, contemplating loneliness, or lamenting the privileges that elude her as a woman of colour, she writes with the assuredness of a woman who truly know herself and the world around her. To be sure, the candour and brevity of her lyrics reveal a compelling, matter-of-fact confidence – a strength derived from a willingness to put oneself out there and embrace vulnerability. When singing about great sex on ‘How Do You Do It?’, for example, she bluntly acknowledges that “I forgot that I could let someone else fulfil me,” and in one line tells an entire story that’s at once devastating and empowering. Then there’s ‘Kitty Kat’, which has Rodriguez responding to a catcaller with an appropriately brutal “Don’t kitty kitty kat me like I’m just your pussy.” This is the kind of directness that leads an artist to title their début album Me, and it resounds throughout a record that is, unsurprisingly, all about its creator.
But honesty wouldn’t count for much had Rodriguez not also matured as a musician – if she couldn’t articulate her ideas in a suitable or compelling manner. If Me is your first encounter with her music, it may seem as if she’s emerged fully formed, but she’s been recording as Empress Of for three years now, ever since she posted demos called ‘colourminutes’ on YouTube. That her first releases were demos should give an indication towards her initial approach, which eschewed immaculate polish and ambitions of instant success for experimentation and an open creative process. This may have resulted in a body of work that was aesthetically scattershot, fluctuating as it did between the iridescent nostalgia of dream-pop and some wonderfully jarring experimental pop, but that was part of the charm – an inclination towards trying new things is what you want from a new artist, even if they don’t succeed with every experiment. That’s especially relevant in Rodriguez’s case, because the years spent careering through the myriad variants of pop music have brought her to this point, where she’s grown more confident as a musician, carved a unique space within the broad idiom of pop, and settled on a more coherent and refined sound.
The production on Me is therefore blessed with a directness akin Rodriguez’s lyrics, and it brings to mind such stylistic antecedents as Caribou and Robyn, perhaps even Bjork when she dabbled in house on Debut. In other words, there’s an immediacy and energy to the album’s pop stylings that eluded much of her previous work; it’s gregarious and loud, adorned with sonically adventurous flourishes but not at all bothered with dream-pop’s obfuscatory soundscapes. This transformation can be partially attributed to Rodriguez’s desire to have more fun when performing live, as her older material was more likely to move audiences emotionally than physically. Never is this more obvious than on ‘Water Water’, a joyfully unabashed club banger that, in terms of texture and volume, almost sounds as if could have been produced by Calvin Harris or one of his contemporaries. Such playfulness and accessibility run through the album, and it may be one of Rodriguez’s greatest triumphs that she managed to amplify deeply personal experiences to the point that they can be enjoyed by everybody. It also helps that she’s developed a stronger conceptual grasp, a surer idea of what she wants to say and how to express it musically. ‘Standard’, for example, goes hard enough to mirror her righteous indignation about the systems of privilege she takes as her subject, while anxieties derived from isolation are turned into a deliriously warped disco on ‘Threat’.
This conceptual quality extends to the album writ large, which begins in a place of suppressing one’s identity in a relationship on the opening track ‘Everything is You’ (which has an interesting foil in ‘Make Up’) and ends with the jubilant self-reliance of ‘Icon’. It’s a thoroughly considered record, demonstrating that Rodriguez’s personal and artistic growth are far from mutually exclusive. Her decision to self-produce was predicated on a fear that her authorial voice (not to mention her bewitching vocals) would be drowned out, that, if she didn’t handle everything, it wouldn’t really be her, and it follows that the record provides a clearly defined an impression of who Lorely Rodriguez really is. She named it Me for a reason, after all; it’s hardly subtle, but nor does it need to be when Rodriguez has had such a fucking blast finding a rhythm of her own.