Empress Of Sings About A Million Types Of Infatuation On The Exquisitely Crafted ‘Us’

Adam Elramly

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In pop music, there are a few different types of love.

More than other genres, I think, pop is beholden to catching on with the people who listen to it. It’s supposed to burrow into your brain and hook you. Where listening to rock and hhip-hopis about hearing stories and learning about the lives and feelings of the people who make it, pop is a little more selfish. Listening to a pop song, you want to apply it to yourself. The love in most pop songs feels familiar. There’s whirlwind bubblegum obsession, hang-us-in-the-Louvre love. There’s defiant, we’re perfect and screw everyone who says otherwise because-they-don’t-know-about-us love. There’s platonic, all-the-girls-stepping-out-for-a-public-affair love. Self-love is real, and for after breakups. As a listener, it’s easy to hear yourself in those songs.

Empress Of sings about love, too, but love for her is a specific, refined vision. While it’s easy to groove along with her exquisitely crafted electro-pop, singer Lorely Rodriguez doesn’t seem all that interested in leaving space for everyone to find themselves in her music. She’s telling stories of relationships and connections with other people, and rather than insert yourself into them, she’s asking the listener to come along for the ride. Hear her sing her love stories.

2015’s Me, her first album, had that same tendency, but more inward-directed. Rodriguez was showing us her interior thoughts and feelings. Her intricately layered beats are easy to get lost in — like reading a great book, sometimes it’s comforting to give yourself up to a great story that’s about someone else. The sharp detail of her lyricism makes it impossible to listen and just wallow over your own feelings. In “Need Myself,” off Me, she sang “I’m making love to myself / When I’m making love to you,” which is a great line and a great summary of what this album sounds like. Rodriguez seizes feeling and emotion and directs it back onto herself. Everything is channeled through her.

Between Me and her new album, Us, Rodriguez moved from New York to Los Angeles. As she has said in various interviews, she felt a deeper connection with members of the Latinx community after moving back to the city where she grew up. She maintained friendships and collaborated with people whose art and minds she admires. She fell in love, and she surprised herself feeling more free and comfortable than ever. Rodriguez sings about it all on Us. And it’s right there in the title — this is an album about pairs and groups and the feelings and love between them all.

Album opener “Everything To Me” is full of platonic infatuation. It’s a love song about a city, or more accurately, about one person who makes a whole city sparkle. New York is everywhere in this song — Rodriguez sings about wasting time on her friend’s stoop, squinting at the city on rooftops, how everyone seems to stay in the city except for, it’s implied, her. (There’s a nostalgic twinge to this song. Even if you don’t know that Rodriguez moved to LA, you can hear it in the song.) “You’re always gonna be / Everything to me,” she sings to this person she loves. It’s romantic and beautiful, a love letter to the friends you spend lazy summer days with (the realest love of all).

I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” is also about the safety and comfort of being close to someone. When she’s with this person, Rodriguez feels so comfortable that she does things she normally doesn’t: “I don’t even smoke weed / It gives me anxiety / But when I’m with you / I’m too careless to / Care what people think.” She sings about being “in the palm of your hand,” and from the rest of the song, it sounds like there’s no place she’d rather be than held by the person she loves.

Rodriguez crafts gorgeous imagery from love. The relationship at the center of “Just the Same” is intense, but she’s comfortable in how fast they fell: “The genesis of all this started in the rain / I hope it grows into a forest, just the same.” Imagine the falling fast in love like a torrential downpour. There’s potential and beauty there. People and beauty grow from so much water and so much feeling.

Much of the album is bouncy and sunny, with sparklier production and a more cheerful outlook than Me, as Rodriguez looks away from herself and toward the love and community around her. But as much care and attention to detail that she gives places, friends, and her lover, she also turns inward with new care. “Timberlands” sees Rodriguez wanting some space. Timberland boots, the unofficial heartbreaker’s uniform, become a metaphor for the person who wears them. “Lace up your Timberlands / Step on my heart again / I’ll never let you in,” Rodriguez sings over a cheerful beat.

But the song is deceptive. “Timberlands” is a sneaky self-love anthem, about growing stronger and more confident to turn away from the things that hurt. “I’m my own worst enemy / I’m my favorite centerpiece / Whatever, at least I’m tryna be myself more,” Rodriguez sings, letting herself be the flawed, funny, beautiful, steadily more certain centerpiece of this song. “A holy trinity / Me, myself, and I could be / If we ever can agree.”

In her spiky lyrics and meticulous beats, Empress Of tells us about herself and the people she loves. She switches between English and Spanish, from infatuation with her lover to platonic wonder for her community, and circles back to the genius brain we got to know so well on Me. Rodriguez is a gifted storyteller. Listening to this album, it doesn’t matter that I personally have never lived in New York and sat on my friend’s stoop, that smoking weed doesn’t give me anxiety, or that sometimes I can’t relate to this sunny optimism for the world and the power of community. Us asks us to shut up and listen for a minute, just lose yourself in some great stories.

Us is out now via Terrible Records. Get it here.

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