It’s tempting to see Us, the second full-length from Empress Of, in terms of maturity. Moving on from the profound interiority of her debut Me, it tells the story of relationships, examining the struggle between two people to connect and the painful alchemy that takes place in the process. Between its theme and the fact that the album has a more polished pop sound, it would be easy to cast the album as a maturing, the kind that we do through our bonds with others, the kind that supposedly defines a woman’s life. We all start as a “me” but grow until we’re ready to be an “us,” right? Thankfully, Us isn’t quite as simple as that and doesn’t focus on anything as dull as a linear progression from one to two. Me was about a woman’s fight for a sense of self under capitalist patriarchy. Us searches for connection while trying to hold on to that sense of self.
Me was an intense encounter with hondureña singer-producer Lorely Rodriguez, a formidable artist who dazzled without seeming to need to prove anything and who expressed her confidence through a willingness to be strange, to describe experiences that didn’t fit into simple categories. Her melodic electro was full of sharp twists and spiky bits. Listeners had to put in some effort to enter her world, but they were drawn to its challenge all the same.
In its accessibility, Us presents a new kind of challenge – to not be fooled. It might seem more easily digestible than Me – the mainstream pop melodies go down with the smoothness of a sophisticated fruity cocktail, Rodriguez’s voice follows more familiar progressions and cadences, the lyrics traffic in less ambiguity – but there’s much more to the album than shiny surface. The closer you listen, the more there is to hear. Under the gloss lies an intricate narrative.
The album opens with the vivid scene setting of “Everything to Me.” The specificity of the line “Everyone on the roof is in bathing suits but there’s nowhere to swim/Trying to get a little tan because they never leave this town,” lets you know in what world these songs are taking place – one where couples fight in the car and argue about smoking. “Just the Same,” a light-headed love song with a Caribbean-leaning beat, follows with commonplace sentiments: “Whisper something to me make my heartbeat race/I can’t concentrate with your arms around my waist.” In this case, common doesn’t mean pedestrian, just real, and very believable. After that, the album descends into the less-fun parts of romantic relationships. Dealing with the loneliness and confusion of a difficult relationship (in English and Spanish), “When I’m with Him” is the album’s emotional low point.
Us testifies to just how deep a cycle of pop songs about love can go, and its heart is the transcendent “I’ve Got Love.” Lines like “Kindness is a secondhand truth/Pass it down from man to man” mark the song as the album’s moral key and make it clear that the song and the album are about more than achieving the ideal of stable monogamy or not. The epiphany of “I’ve Got Love” is that love comes from within an individual, an unending source of resilience that can be shared with others.
The biggest mistake would be to think Rodriguez has compromised her musical integrity in any way with Us. Though it’s broadly relatable, Us is too thoughtful to be a commercially motivated pivot. In fact, it’s a gauntlet thrown down before anyone who might think her debut was better for being more hermetic. For one thing, this follow-up consists of exceptionally good pop, as in full-on earworms with supermodel bone structures borrowed from 90s R&B and neo-soul. Rodriguez produced most of the album herself, but pulled in Dev Hynes, Brooklyn-based producer Chrome Sparks, Spanish producer Pional, and LA DJs/producers DJDS for back up and Hynes’s rose-tinted pixie dust is particularly traceable throughout.
This album isn’t better or more mature than Me either, though it does represent an interesting evolution. The choice to make an album like this makes an intriguing statement in itself. This thoroughly crafted pop carries a sincere message of love, but the medium may be a message of its own. It makes a strong case that music like this might be the kind we need most right now. Rodriguez’s existing fans will likely be ready for this argument, and there’s no way it won’t win many more admirers.
Empress Of’s Us is out now on Terrible Records.