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In 2017, a video from the Korean-American producer Yaeji started circulating on the internet, racking up views by the thousands — and not just because it was released via the YouTube channel for 88rising, a massive collective for Asian-American and Asian artists. In the clip, the then-23-year-old producer and singer rides her bike through empty streets, deadpan rapping in Korean over slippery house beats, flexing with the air of an iced-out rapper all while wearing horn-rimmed glasses and an oversized blazer on her petite frame. The effect was incredible, and mesmerizing, and 8 million views later, Yaeji was well on her way to mainstream fame in America.
“Drink I’m Sippin’ On” wasn’t quite her first single, but it helped put Kathy Yaeji Lee — aka Yaeji — and her subsequent, short release, EP2, on the map in a way that her initial self-titled EP Yaeji didn’t. Or maybe the momentum was building either way, as the releases came in quick succession in March and November of 2017, both released via Talya Elitzer and Nick Sylvester’s New York-based label and management company, Godmode. But then, a full-length never materialized, and outside of the 2018 one-off, appropriately titled “One More,” pretty much the only thing coming out of the Yaeji camp was remixes.
Not that successfully remixing pop auteurs like Robyn (“Beach 2K20”) and Charli XCX (“Focus”) is a small feat, or that her well-received rework of Drake’s “Passionfruit” on EP2 wasn’t arguably better than the original, simply that fans were fascinated with the original material they’d already heard, and eager to see what Lee would do next. Finally, in March of this year, right before the world went on pause due to the spread of COVID-19, word came down: a new, 12-track mixtape was coming, this time released by the esteemed British indie, XL Recordings.
Released last Friday, that mixtape, titled What We Drew in English, showcases exactly what Yaeji has been doing for the last two and a half years — fixating on a sound that will likely become the blueprint for emerging producers in the next decade. An easy peer of Grimes — and both of them influenced by Janet Jackson — Yaeji’s self-produced, softly-murmured offerings push her to the edge of experimental pop and the DIY electronic production that exploded in the age of personal computers and digital audio workstation software, but the pulsing undercurrent of house music and inklings of hip-hop elevate her work into a category all its own. Mixing that with ASMR-styled lyrics, often submerged well below the surface of her productions, and surprising ear for hooky, unshakeable riffs, Yaeji’s latest is an enormous step forward.
On What We Drew, Yaeji speaks to a world in lockdown, debuting the EP with a livestream of herself drawing and doodling, while the songs played idly in the background. There’s enough muted cohesion here to make the tape suitable for playing as a backdrop, but all the intricacies that unfold when listening with careful attention makes the latter approach the better one. And, for those locked inside, this release offers layers and layers of sound to unpack and something new to discover on every listen. It’s a record full of songs that hum with gloomy optimism, weighty verses trade off with flickering, falsetto choruses, and vice versa.
Born in Queens, raised in South Korea, and currently based in Brooklyn, Yaeji is often described as a “NYC-via-Seoul” producer, and the formatting of her new EP echoes that distinction. Every song is written in English and Korean, including the album title, and she moves between the two languages without distinguishing between them, as most people who have two or more languages in their head instinctually do. On the mixtape’s introductory single, “Waking Up Down,” she rattles off the everyday tasks she can accomplish in English, before swapping to Korean for the chorus. Hearing her celebrate muddling through the mundane daily tasks is oddly prescient while stuck inside during a pandemic, where even the simplest chores seem particularly challenging in the face of global crisis.
Like any great producer, Yaeji also shines when it comes to selecting and orienting guest stars, as Lil Fayo, Trenchcoat, and Sweet Pea fill standout track “Free Interlude” with the kind of orchestrated chaotic energy that made early Odd Future compilations so fun to listen to. On her own for “In The Mirror,” which sounds like an inverted song off Charli XCX’s last album, Lee builds ominous drums to create tension for a long two-minute intro before exploding into an earworm Autotuned chorus that’s over too soon, mimicking the serotonin release of an EDM drop when it hits. And while a handful of people listening to Yaeji in 2020 might have extensive knowledge of house vocalists, it’s more likely that she’s one of their first entry points into the storied and often overlooked corner of the music world; but like most great vocalists in the genre, her ability to use lyrics and vocals as just another abstract part of the song, and not the tonal focus of the track, is yet another underrated skill.
It’s exactly her intuitive ability to move between languages, and genres — house, hip-hop, pop — that makes When We Drew feel like the next logical step for pop’s best and most interesting impulses. These are pop songs deconstructed to work as landscapes, not portraits, never paint-by-numbers melodies, always textured beyond a traditional hook-focused structure, but with earworm appeal built into each track’s foundations. This also makes it hard to pick a favorite song on the tape, because it feels like they’re always morphing. With weeks of lockdown potentially ahead of us, it will be interesting to notice how the impact of What We Drew changes over time, it strikes me as the kind of album that could help define how this period sounded and felt. One thing is certain, there are few better albums to be locked indoors with. It isn’t a cheerful record, but there’s strange and welcome joy in these deconstructed dancefloor jams.
What We Drew is out now via XL Recordings. Get it here.