Me, Empress Of
Terrible Records, USA
by Sam Rodgers
Two years ago, with a swatch of colors, Empress Of - a moniker with the mystique of a 'Lorde' or a 'Lana Del Rey' or a 'Kali Mutsa' - released fifteen snatches of ideas for beats and harmonies, with some bursts of melodic inspiration. Lorely Rodriguez's generosity, whether intended as a stepping stone or tentative first step, gave those of us paying attention a grab of an exciting new voice, one that we'd soon learn was producing everything herself. With Color #10, you get an insight into Rodriguez's latin@ roots - a California-raised, Honduran-American, now based in New York. For the most part, her identity mirrors a lot of the Fonograma staff, and for this reason, we're claiming her; though she is definitely set to be watched by a vaster, more global audience sooner rather than later, with the release of her first LP, Me.
The first and, perhaps best, revelation on Me is that Rodriguez's vocals are now front and centre, an assured decision, and logical considering the album's title. However, unlike the previously mentioned masked singers, Rodriguez's voice swings between the bark of your best friend shouting at you from the swimming pool to eery-chanteuse-flexing-scales in a heartbeat: there's little pretense to it. Given the costume of 'Empress Of', it's the lyrics of Me that save the project from residing in the pile of 'just another...' (while we're using sentence fragments as nouns). Rodriguez thrusts her journal into your hands and says, "I'm going to sing this to you", and starts without permission. But this is a carefully considered journal: lyrically, Rodriguez knows exactly how much she needs to obfuscate, retain, and push forward. The anatomy of a pop song centers around a basic theme, but better still, a signifier that presents each track as a stand alone: something Javiera Mena continues refining in an alternative technicolor world. Me, on the other hand, is much more monochromatic, like its cover photo; much more tactile, too. You're still holding onto the newest per(sonal)-zine by Empress Of, the photocopier ink fresh and warm. It's just that now her aesthetic stands apart. (Note how un-flashy Rodriguez presents herself on the cover, but how her pose is calculating and observational all the same. A different type of power.)
What makes Me so conspicuous is its very contemporary take on relationship navigation: we're now in a post-casual-sex-happens-get-over-it world; we're in a post-Beyonce-is-also-a-Feminist world; we're in a post-another-article-about-how-selfies-are-narcissistic world. Me operates for those who've done the reading but know how messy life in 2015 really is: to choose not to be seen results in just as much isolation as presenting your best self at all times. The latter, the nature of social media, has also bred something not often broached in danceable pop outside of hip hop: class and money. Rodriguez targets these in two of the best tracks of the album, the arresting first single "Water Water", and one of the best tracks of the year so far, "Standard". Using potable water to signify privilege, we get a dirty dance track inspired by actual thirst whilst writing the album alone in small-town Mexico. On "Standard", the listener gets a clearer picture of Rodriguez's anguish. Here, she's addressing a trust fund love interest, with torch-song melodies and great, incisive lyrics, hitting bullseye after bullseye: "I've been living below the standard / while you struggle being home and bored"; "Tell me what you see / in the mirror when you're feeling restless / Do you see a man who isn't there? / Living for the sake of living / I can promise you no one cares."
Elsewhere on the album, Rodriguez nails the frustration of being cat-called in the street with "Kitty Kat", a stomping declaration of independence and intolerance of double-standards: "Don't take me by the hand and walk me through with pity / If I was a man would you still do the same?" But this is just one moment in a life - on other tracks, Rodriguez allows us to hear her vulnerability through co-dependence: whether on human contact or human escape. On "Need Myself" she meditates on balancing one's own identity within a relationship "to be happy with you" - like Björk's rumination on the edge of a mountain in "Hyperballad." Sonically, Me shares an experimental pop edge like the Icelandic artist's first solo albums, never losing sight of its digestibility. What makes this album more remarkable, though, is Rodriguez's claim that making the album was purely instinctual. To do it all oneself, and to then put yourself as the main subject matter without older professionals helping you edit that down to a listenable whole, is no mean feat. The fact that Empress Of made it to this stage without even commenting on this laborious process within the album is testament to her tenacity and understanding that non-artists don't 'get' what's on the other side of a shining piece of pop. She touches on it in the video for "How Do You Do It"(all backstage and touring footage) and much more obliquely in the closing track "Icon" where the lyrics about the absent, heart-curdling feeling fresh from a break up mirrors the intense isolation an artist feels when no one's there appreciating the work: "Every minute passes like an hour / When I'm just in the room with the lights on / And there's no one who knows I'm their icon." Luckily for Rodriguez, there's sure to be worshippers at the Empress Of alter soon enough.