Empress Of – “Us”

Empress Of‘s sophomore album “Us” is out on Terrible Records.

Three years after the release of her debut album, Empress Of returns with ‘Us’. A ten-track effort that re-routes Empress Of towards a more mainstream sound, ‘Us’ sees Lorely Rodriguez relying heavily on her hook-making ability. On paper, that’s not a bad idea. When she’s at the top of her game, Rodriguez is a hook-making machine that can look straight into the eye of pop’s biggest names. Now that only happens intermittently, but when it happens, it’s a joy to listen. Much like Robyn‘s ‘Body Part’ era, there’s something about Empress Of’s music that seems deceptively simple, at times even childish. Some of her most memorable melodies sound almost like nursery rhymes, which probably explains why she can get away with rhyming “I don’t even smoke weed” with “It gives me anxiety”.

Instead of playing it by the same rules that with her debut, Empress Of has changed paths and gone on a more collaborative way. Though the names she’s worked with seem like a good fit for her (Dev Hynes, Pional, DJDS) and she has also taken on a lot of production duties, the result is not only underwhelming but impersonal. While ‘Me’ worked as an imperfect yet prescient scope on Lorely Rodriguez’s ambition and anxieties as an artist, ‘Us’ is an over-polished pop album that rarely goes beyond being an over-polished pop album. And it is so from the very first moment. Built on a repetitive, almost minimalist synth line and relying on an understated bassline and programmed drums for its rhythm section, opening track “Everything To Me” seems like a quintessential Empress Of song. It looks exciting enough during the first lines, but then the chorus comes and you can’t help but feel let down. And that is exactly the biggest problem with Us. It’s as if the songs were building on something that is ultimately never delivered – and not precisely because they subvert expectations. “Everything To Me”, just like “Just The Same” and many other tracks in this album, is sorely missing the kind of big chorus that made Empress Of’s debut so good. Instead, we get plenty of watered down and forgettable versions of Empress Of choruses that just don’t cut it.

While the album is strong in its melodies and advert-ready choruses, it also suffers from a shockingly dated production that makes it feel both generic and out of touch. There were moments in Empress Of’s debut album that hinted at a more sophisticated and elaborate sound (take the wordless hook in “Water Water” or the PC Music-tier “Kitty Kat”), and many of us wondered if she’d build on that in future releases. Instead, what we have in ‘Us’ is not a straight-up sequel of her debut but a ready-to-eat version of it that does away with experimentation and sticks to spoon-feeding the listener with harmless melodies and sounds that wouldn’t be out of place coming out of a retail store speaker. What is actually disappointing is not that the songs aren’t as catchy as in ‘Me’, but that they don’t look for different ways to make up for that. The ten tracks that comprise ‘Us’ are still straightforward electro-pop songs adhering closely to the genre’s tropes. When it works, there’s nothing to complain about. If there’s something Rodriguez can do, that’s coming up with melodies, and her electro aesthetics are a perfect fit with her voice. When it doesn’t work and the songs are simply not memorable enough in their composition, there’s no safety net.

Still, ‘Us’ contains enough rewarding moments to be a fun listen, even if it’s an uneven one. The highest of those moments would “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed”, a perfect electropop song that puts everything else in Us to shame. From its ringtone-like intro to from its massive, instantly singable chorus, this thing has more hooks than the rest of the album put together. It’s also one of these songs where the verses are somehow catchier than the chorus, which speaks for Rodriguez’s undeniable gift for songwriting. Its brilliance also resides in its title and lyrics – if there is something that pop music has done since the 1960s, that is glorifying and normalizing the use of recreational drugs. By how its first lines go, you could be forgiven for thinking that “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” is yet another song about getting high when it’s really about getting high with someone. It’s effectively a classic love song, one that painstakingly goes through the highs (no pun intended) and lows of being in an un unhealthy relationship.

All of them piled in the second half, the album’s brightest moments see Rodriguez at her softest as she masters the art of the electropop ballad. While lead single “When I’m With Him” succeeds in being a worthy companion piece to “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed”, it’s the closer “Again” that truly takes the spotlight in the latter half of Us. A minimalist ballad featuring careful production tricks, “Again” is the sweetest and most touching song on the album. “I’m sure I’d recognize you if I lost my memory,” Rodriguez sings in the opening line of a song about embracing the bumps in the road. Austere and dream-poppy in Rodriguez’s vocal delivery, “Again” is also the most distinctive song here in terms of production, and it goes to show that her talents could be put into better use. ‘Us’ is not without its charms, and its highest points are too good for it to be a total trainwreck, but it’s not what we expected from Empress Of after three years of silence.