In a time when complex music production technology can be downloaded from the Internet free of charge, the ability to produce strange and exotic electronic sounds is available to anyone with a vision, rather than just those with the means. On Empress Of’s debut album, the tersely titled Me, snapping rhythms and luminous electronics are removed from the club and become a language of isolation and introspection.
Empress Of is Lorely Rodriguez, who over several years worked her way in from the borders of the indie music community. From her earliest releases under the name Empress Of, Rodriguez has shown startling growth. The effervescent pop of her 2013 EP Systems is barely recognisable as the same artist. This album, recorded during a long stay in a small rural town in Mexico, combines gritty rhythms with jagged synthesizer textures for a stunning collision of the physical and the cerebral.
As per the album’s title, it is explicitly personal in nature, but there seems to be a clear influence from the environment in which it was recorded. “Water, water is a privilege / Just like kids who go to college,” Rodriguez sings on the thumping “Water Water,” which, with its unruly wallops of synth and what sounds like a crudely amplified thumb piano, could be the soundtrack to a block party in a slum. There’s something thrilling to the idea that this rough-hewn, but beautifully textured music could come from one woman isolated in a remote locale.
It’s a contradiction that Rodriguez seems to recognise. She takes beats typically associated with populist house, hip-hop and high gloss pop and R&B (she even covered Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold” in her distinctive style) and welds them to decidedly underground themes and production. A carbonated melody that feels like popping bubbles stutters through standout track “Standard” while a high-pitched synth heralds an incoming canyon-sized drop with churning bass reminiscent of the harsh electronics of dubstep. To that unwieldy backdrop Rodriguez attaches her prettiest, most cutting melody.
Rodriguez has a gifted ear for melody. Many tracks feature wordless vocalisations that twist and turn in compelling and satisfying ways. On the album’s opener “Everything Is You,” she draws out the word “you” in a fluttering way that sounds like birdsong, and her clear alto colours in the spaces on the gentle closer “Icon”. Her supple but strong voice plays a big part in distinguishing her from the many wispy singer-songwriters such as FKA twigs and Grimes, who work in a similarly experimental electronic pop sphere.
It’s obvious that the music on Me took a lot of tinkering and playing around, but it never feels forced or contrived. Some touches, like the complex, lopsided beat on the kinetic “To Get By” or the odd deflating texture of the bass that opens the sensual “Kitty Kat” almost feel like happy accidents. There is a sense of exploration to the proceedings, as if Rodriguez were spilling herself out and seeing what patterns emerge.
Me defies the tired adage that electronic music has no soul. “Need Myself” is a bold and empowering declaration of independence, set to thundering polyrhythmic drums that finds Rodriguez’s voice bolstered, not drowned out by the surrounding ruckus. If she were singing over an acoustic backdrop (in the confessional mode), Rodriguez’s staunch affirmations would not sound as powerful as they do within the sound world that she has created.
Rather than stripping music of its soul, access to technology makes this kind of self-expression possible; binaries – personal and universal, rich and poor, marginal and maximal – are broken down. With her cosmopolitan funk, Empress Of navigates these spaces with a confidence and assuredness that make this an almost revelatory full-length debut. She had forged an identity and a distinctive sound that is not just current, but presciently forward-thinking.
Me is out now on CD and digital formats.