Lorely Rodriguez makes music that weaponizes awkwardness. Her debut album under the alias Empress Of, 2015’s Me, has a kind of chaotic momentum to it, at once a little messy and compellingly energetic. It sounds both like the majority of pop music and also like nothing in particular. At her best moments, she produces a convincing synthesis, capitulating neither to the undertow of dance music or the voice-centeredness of pop (see: “How Do You Do It” and “Kitty Kat”).
Her lyrics are ambiguous and occasionally bizarre, close rhymes piling up on top of each other and sentences left unfinished. Her vocal delivery is delicate, and her instrumentals bristle, crackle and cut. Her first few projects are comparable in style to FKA Twigs, Björk and Grimes, although her music is strongly individual and she’s resisted comparisons to Grimes, specifically stating, “You can’t hear the lyrics in a lot of her songs, but for me, when I mixed this record I needed to hear every word. The lyrics are my story and I needed my story to be heard.”
Her new album, Us, released three years after Me, clarifies and updates her sound. In the time between, she has collaborated with Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), Jerome Potter (half of DJDS) and Khalid, and her style shows a new maturity as well as some stylistic traits of her collaborators. The big-room EDM is largely replaced with R&B-inflected grooves, while keeping the electropop scaffolding. “Trust Me Baby” is a good example: It has the mobile bassline and synths of her earlier music while adding 808 drums and neater phrases. Even when she does write a four-on-the-floor groove (“Just The Same” and “Love For Me”), the beat has a newfound shuffle, with none of the motoric quality of her older work like “Water Water.”
Her sound design and mixing similarly borrow from R&B in a way that they haven’t before, and the album benefits tremendously for it. Her synths lose their overwhelming quality, and her talents as a songwriter and vocalist are front-and-center. A lot of what makes Me feel messy is how much high-end frequencies crowd out the vocals. While Us generally solves this, her abilities as a producer still shine through — the airy energy of “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” or the breathtaking space of “Again” are recognizable to her style, as are the meandering melodies and sharp percussion that cover the album. She alchemizes the sometimes unclear energies of Me into self-assured sultry slow dances (“Trust Me Baby”) and energetic electropop tracks (“I’ve Got Love”), transmuting the washed-out pastels into a Californian neon-and-sunset glow.
It’s interesting that the two tracks in which Rodriguez explores her insecurities in the same way that she did in Me are also the two tracks that resemble the first album sonically. “All For Nothing” and “When I’m With Him” both have the sort of stuttering melodies and repetitive drums of her first album. These are songs where there are lyrics about feeling unsure (“I can’t help but repress / all the signs / that tell me I’m not fine,” “I feel like I’m on the outside looking in / when I’m with him” ). So much of her first album was about struggling to get somewhere, artistically and otherwise — “I’ve been living below the standard / with a hunger that fuels the fire” from “Standard” is emblematic. Us seems to show a newfound confidence that suits her well, but songs like “All For Nothing” make a connection between her older material and this newfound ambition.
She ties the album together with the closing track “Again.” It seems to respond to her anxieties: “I know it’s not always perfect / if I had the chance I’d do it all again.” A song is the perfect vehicle for a statement that can otherwise be a platitude, and in the context of the album, it builds a bridge between the anxious energy of Me and her newfound confidence. The embrace of imperfection is not a new theme, but when done by an artist like Rodriguez who has shown so much of herself, the listener feels the full weight of lines that would be cliché elsewhere.