Often when discussing music, the label of “artist” feels somewhat dishonest. Is someone with an army of co-writers and co-producers an artist in his or her own right? Does an industry that treats performers like money-making machines cultivate true artistry? Should the same standards applied to painting and poetry be used for music made for mass consumption? Considering the forces stacked against musicians striving for the title, its attainment is all the more impressive. Lorely Rodriguez, better known as Empress Of, has decisively demonstrated her ability to bridge the gap between art and fun on her debut album Me.
Rodriguez has shown promising signs for several years as one of the most exciting of the truly creative minds in music. Spending an early part of her career with Celestial Shore, the Brooklyn math rock group, gave Rodriguez the tools to build an interesting and angular take on pop music. Her color-minute demos, short tracks uploaded with color block visuals, served as an enchanting peek into a world of offbeat, effervescent pop, some of which became a basis for her subsequent EP. Me has more in common with standard house and dance music than her previous material, but the elements of twisting syncopation and soaring ambition are still beautifully in place. Rodriguez truly stakes her claim as an artist by asserting her self-contained creativity. She wrote, recorded, and produced every element of the album, including all drums, synths, and vocals. An impressive achievement, this meticulous control demonstrates Rodriguez’s range of talent and confidence. It also mirrors perfectly the title of the album—Me. When the record is understood as a composite reflection of its creator, a self-portrait of Rodriguez, the music unfolds beautifully.
From the outset, Rodriguez holds back little in the way of production. On the opening track “Everything is You,” her acrobatic voice trapezes over the lush electronic platform below. As the music skitters and stutters, her vocals linger around it like a long embrace. “Standard” sounds like it was influenced by Devonté Hynes (of Blood Orange fame, one of Rodriguez’s musical friends and collaborators) as it builds to a slow but booming chorus over tumbling chords and a terrific vocal hook. The old askew flourishes are still here, most notably on the big mid-way track “To Get By” and the fizzing groove of “Threat.” Throughout, the listener is immersed entirely in a world of Rodriguez’s creating, and like a deft puppeteer, she can’t help but make us dance. Thematically, the album is acutely exploratory, demonstrated by its impressive range of feeling. From reverent self-sacrifice and admiration on “Everything Is You” to defiant self-reliance and liberation on “Need Myself,” Rodriguez discovers the many intersections of self and love experienced in relationships.
Overall, the album is an enticing debut from an artist many have been watching for several years. A bold introduction, Rodriguez has confidently stepped out to tell the world “this is Me.” With more fame and recognition it remains to be seen if she will remain firmly independent, but either way her talent is undoubtedly far from spent.