Systems EP, Empress Of
Terrible Records/Double Denim
by Giovanni Guillén
What have we learned since the '00s Latin Wave fizzled out? That the U.S. Latino presence can be adequately represented by a few megastars? That “Latino-ness” looks the same across the country and has been that way forever? These questions aren’t meant to bash the crossover success of J.Lo or even Pitbull, but more to illustrate my relief at the arrival of one Empress Of. Like 23-year-old Lorely Rodríguez, I am a native-born U.S. citizen whose first language was Spanish. Over time, school and friends naturally forced new dimensions onto my cultural identity. While this is, for the most part, a wonderful thing to experience, it definitely has its downside; for instance, in cases where others attempt to define that identity for me (“you don’t look or act Mexican…”).
Released on Terrible Records, the same brand attached to an impressive roster of Brooklyn cool kids (Chris Taylor, Chairlift, Blood Orange), one might be tempted to make similar false judgments towards Empress Of and her debut EP. Lacking an obvious Latin background, somehow it would then be fair to characterize her in another extreme: a trendy product made to blend in with the rest of (mostly) white indie culture. Systems, thankfully, is none of that. Written and self-produced, Rodríguez offers a unique glimpse inward: her bilingual thoughts, her own experiments, all while simultaneously challenging ideas about what a Latin@ musician should look and sound like in 2013. On paper that already makes this four-song release a success, but the true achievement, of course, behind Empress Of lies entirely in the quality of the music.
Last year’s Yours Truly performance of “Don’t Tell Me” served as the perfect prelude into Systems. By stripping the song of its orotund layers and effects (leaving only piano), one had no choice but to confront Rodríguez’s delicate plea: “Don’t tell me it’s too late for us… hold me tight, don’t let go.” On Systems, Rodríguez’s words once again seek safety behind the old dynamic, only now there’s a balance. The production is tighter, the lyrics are no longer buried; strength and fragility coexist, each work to fortify her inner realm.
Opener “Hat Trick” thrusts, no, aparates right into a world of movement and chaos. The interpolated whoosh sounds bring to mind rivers and cascades flowing towards a looming collision. But that danger and uncertainty can also be thrilling (“tell me my future, tell me I’ll make it”). Over the weeks and months that I’ve arrived at its gleaming revelation I still get a rush (“now that I know you exist, never let you go”), rightfully earning a place as one of the year’s best singles. “No Means No” mixes interesting time signatures, subtle math rock (remnants of her Celestial Shore days?) with an exciting hook. Something I could definitely see contemporaries like Algodón Egipcio or Dënver getting their hands on for future remix brilliance.
For the Spanish-language second act, Lorely trades live percussion for brighter designs of synth and voice. “Tristeza” confronts a newly acquired freedom, perhaps after some much-needed crying. The tears are gone, but confusion and anxiety are still there. It’s no wonder Rodríguez pauses and gasps throughout as if catching her breath. “Camisa favorita” builds paper chains out of syllables, carefully laid side-by-side. Its chorus achieves a perfect dizzying effect, “hay algo algo que… olvidé olvidé.” Non-Spanish speakers take note: the repetition on here (like so much music in Spanish) need not be transcribed or translated, it just needs to be felt.