Empress Of creates a community like none other on ‘Us’
October 22, 2018
When Lorely Rodriguez (stage name Empress Of) released “Me,” saturated — almost distorted — with dense synths, she posed pensively (and a bit insecurely) for her black and white debut album cover. But as she comes into full color for her sophomore album, “manspreading” in a dress and red gym shorts, there’s an undeniable self-assurance. “Us” is the natural progression of Rodriguez, who takes a break from the draining politics and sexism of the world to create a 33-minute diary to cry, dance, and smile too.
Rodriguez experienced an immense amount of change between albums (a collaboration with DJDS & Khalid, an international tour, moving from New York to Los Angeles), but she still has a silver tongue for narrations. Accompanied by synths ticking like a clock, Rodriguez duets with Hynes on “Everything To Me,” teeming with her idiosyncratic observations of living in the Big Apple (“We can see the city if we squint,” “Everyone on the roof is in/ Bathing suits, but there’s nowhere to swim”). The beat cuts out at the bridge, replaced by droning violin sounds and Hynes’ voice echoing the song’s title. Each whispered line has a greater intimacy than the last, but what shines through most is the fact that Rodriguez is able to convey the most complex nuances of friendship – the comfort felt by sitting in silence or the joy that comes with small talk – with simplistic lyrics (“In the pouring rain, but we don’t move,” “I hate when you smoke cigarettes/ You hate when I mention it”).
“Just The Same” shifts the spotlight to a more romantic relationship as birds chirp and synths shimmer in the background to Rodriguez’ words. It’s the ecstasy of waking up to someone you love in the morning, adding an extra layer of tenderness to lines like “we never grew out of that ‘too much PDA.” An underappreciated aspect of Rodriguez’ music, however, is how she produces most of it herself, which makes her adept integration of word painting even more admirable: the singer croons, “Make my heartbeat raise,” while the beats of the lone bass bring her words to life. The ambiance is immersive and pure, but not distilled to the point where listeners can’t find themselves sharing Rodriguez’ joy.
Interpersonal relationships aren’t the only things that matter though, and Rodriguez recognizes this fact as she becomes more introspective on “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” and “Timberlands.” A tremolo of synths begins the prior track before the artist recounts an all-too-familiar social anxiety (“I fuck up everything/ Find myself embarrassing”) while poking fun at the Los Angeles obsession with weed. The chorus – devoid of lyrics and teeming with a flurry of synths – is a detour from Rodriguez’ usual structure, but naturally offsets the self-deprecating thoughts of the verses; you can practically visualize Rodriguez vogueing to the production during her live set. “Timberlands,” on the other hand, is more tempered. Arpeggiated melodies of synths create an elevator-music-like soundtrack as the backdrop for assertions of self-love (“Lace up your Timberlands/ Step on my heart again/ I’ll never let you win,” “A holy trinity/ Me, myself, and I could be”) that can find their way into anyone’s heart.
“I’ve Got Love,” Rodriguez’ reassurance for a friend who confided their thoughts of suicide in the artist, has a soundscape as unique as its backstory. The descending chromaticism of syncopated synths and the light mezzo of Rodriguez’ voice sound cautious, almost enveloped in trepidation, but the chorus bursts into a decisive reassurance (“I’ve got love/ Running through my fingers and my bones”) within a futuristic production which rivals that of Shura and Janelle Monáe. The song is a bit of a paradox, addressing an issue so morbid with a sound so exuberant, but it’s what Rodriguez has been perfecting since her EP.
Contrarily, “All For Nothing” distinguishes itself through its visceral lyricism and melody. The sound is thick with yearning as the echoes of the word “nothing” dissipate into the space between the chorus and second verse, and Rodriguez’ catharsis is tangible as she finally realizes how “dry” her love has become, reiterating her disappointment once more in her higher register. She closes the song with exhaustion and frustration in a simple and unfinished phrase, “All I wanna know…,” showcasing the most potent aspect of Rodriguez’ music: her ability to draw out emotion in the subtlest ways.
A surreal and hopeful promise of love, “Again” is the perfect finale to “Us.” Staccato melodies meet the ebb and flow of synths to create an atmosphere suspended in space with two lovers in the center of it all, dazed by the stars:
I’m sure I’d recognize you if I lost my memory / There’s no voice on Earth that speaks so sweet
It’s a passion that defies the bounds of logic, conquering insurmountable odds, and even though the idea of profound love is nothing new (dozens of singers have sung about a whirlwind romance) and an aspiration held by many, that’s the entire purpose of “Us.” Innovation was made along the way, but the album was never about being avant-garde or expanding Rodriguez’ sound to something more pop or more anything; the only goal was connection. You can sing to any song on the radio, diluted by sterile lyrics and production crafted for catchiness, but you feel something through “Us.” And what a beautiful thing that is: to experience hope, frustration, and everything in between and know that you will never be alone in your struggles despite them.