I found Khai Dreams nearly half a decade ago on a lo-fi SoundCloud playlist while struggling with summer insomnia. Her single “New Place to Begin” became my lullaby for those months, its low tones and slightly repetitive yet relaxed instrumentals combined with uplifting lyrical prowess assuaging my anxieties night after night. Her earlier discography is defined by this production and effect — relaxing rap written for emotional relief over often pre-made lo-fi instrumentals, as seen in her 2017 EP Summer is Like a Dream.
Past that era, Khai started flexing her vocal talents more and more on originally produced tracks, culminating in a collab EP, Nice Colors, with fellow indie rapper Atwood, which served as a midway between her lo-fi origins and the more acoustically driven indie pop sound found in the next EP, Now and Then. Comparing her oldest lo-fi raps to more recent indie pop hits shows drastic artistic growth, but as a steady listener for almost half a decade, I could hardly tell because this evolution happened so gradually. Absolute Heartbreak is a growth spurt that takes everything Khai has learned and elevates it to a new level of cohesion and artistic evolution.
The production, as always, stands out as a big leap forward in Khai’s musical growth. Acoustic elements, primarily in guitar strums and drum hits, are mixed with a variety of electronic instruments and sonic choices, such as driving drum machine beats and chiptune sound effects reminiscent of indie game soundtracks. These disparate choices are expertly intertwined, giving the entire album a grounded yet synthetic sound, a dreamlike feeling arising from artificial reality. Some tracks lean into this artifice more than others, like the filtered hyperpop-esque vocals and chaotic instrumentation of “May,” while softer tracks like “No Company” are founded entirely on organic orchestration.
Khai’s vocals show similar variance. “No Company” is the most reminiscent of her older work with husky-voiced delivery, while tracks like “Flowers” and “Bugs” take her all the way into a falsetto serenade. While her singing skills don’t particularly stand out, it isn’t necessary for her chosen style, as she toes the line between blended bars and conversational crooning (with one exception I’ll touch on later). Her intonation also diverges much more on this record, as her clear-spoken diction that’s present on past releases is often overtaken by a muted inflection as if she’s aiming for a form of melodic mumble rap. However, this almost half-asleep accenting still contributes to the album’s surreal sound.
The lyrics she delivers are what has changed the most. Much of those earlier lo-fi and indie pop songs were written with much more straightforward storytelling, but many of Absolute Heartbreak’s tracks are verbally dense while still being less upfront. Her frantic yet still breezy speech patterns tie back to that aforementioned dreamlike sound, almost explicitly stated in the first verses of the first track “Bugs” — “Should I stop, probably not, started out in a dream / Hard to talk, hard to think, maybe I couldn’t see / Nothing’s up fill my time, unparticular things / And if it isn’t what I wanted then I know it now.” But as for all dreams, there’s a question as to what it all means.
As the album’s title suggests, the vague allusions Khai makes throughout her writing are attributed to some form of heartbreak, one so absolutely devastating that it left her in this surreal state. Hints of cogency are dropped more throughout the album as she seems to get back on her feet and process her past. The 10 tracks take us through the ups and downs of this transition: the dream of “Bugs,” the initial bounce-back of “Rats,” the chaotic self-criticism of “May” and “Not Enough,” the more relaxed reflections in “No Company” and “Overall,” all the way to an upbeat exodus from toxicity in “Flowers.” The penultimate track, however, is the true climax of the album.
“Heartbreaker” follows a similar structure to the intro track “Bugs,” swapping out the acoustic guitar plucking with electric strumming, then introducing looser vocals as the beat comes in. Surreal storytelling starts the stanza with a question and nonanswer of “Where’s the pieces and what could go there? / Change it up, change fallin’ from my short hair,” but then switches to more descriptive albeit simpler lyrics: “In a car and I drove really really fast / I push the tank, blinking lights lightin’ up the dash.” Her description starts to devolve as she’s “Pulled over / mind goin’ blank / Feelin’ a thousand days older almost every day, oh God.” As the beat and background melodies build up, a drumroll suddenly transitions to the chorus and Khai’s exception comes in — something that she’s never done before in all her lo-fi discography, something that I hadn’t realized until she caught me off-guard, maybe the only thing she feels can properly express this heartbreak: She screams.
“YOU CAN’T NEED IT WHEN IT’S TOO LATE! / WELL I WAS DOIN’ BETTER OFF / I THOUGHT I MADE IT OUT. / LEAVIN’ HARDER TO BELIEVE IN WHEN EVERYTHING IS HAPPENIN’ / I DON’T WANNA GO! SAID ‘I DON’T WANNA KNOW.’”
This song serves as the climactic catharsis for Khai’s heartbreak, but it’s not the final word. The album closes with an acoustic version of “Good Advice,” a single Khai released a couple of years ago. What seems odd at first is that the original, fully-orchestrated single isn’t included. However, listening to her lyrics that detail a strained relationship among the light strums and guitar taps suggests perhaps a softer reflection on the situation after heartbreak. Or maybe she’s lulling herself back into dreams, the same that started off the album. Whatever the case, I’m glad to have another track for when my insomnia inevitably rears its head again — though the rest of you better not sleep on Khai Dreams.
Digital Culture Beat Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.