Niki Turns To Vulnerability And Alternative Pop On Her New Album, ‘Nicole’

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Niki, also known as Nicole Zefanya, has the kind of voice that can put someone in a trance. The 88rising artist, though, has been changing up what she does with it. Her past albums focused on an R&B sound that brought her success; she has millions of followers on social media ready to support whatever she does, and her hit “Lowkey” is mega-viral at over 200 million Spotify streams. That track hypnotized listeners with rapped verses and an intimate chorus that flaunted her alluring lilt. But with her new album Nicole, she’s leaving the flows behind and turning to a vulnerable brand of alternative pop.

The singles all showcased a softer direction that zoned in on her knack for storytelling. “You hid me in your dorm room / It was Halloweekend, I just flew across the globe / Twenty-two hours just to see you,” she sings on the lead single, “Before,” which is also the opening track, immediately throwing the listener into her life without warning. She continues, “Just to barely fit on your twin-sized bed / And talk about your cool new friend / Who I never met, who you dated as soon as I left.” If you’re chronically online, this might bring to mind the notorious TikTok controversy known as Couch Guy, a college boy whose girlfriend surprised him by showing up at his school, which prompted a suspicious reaction from him as he seemed not very excited and had his arm around another girl (unless he actually didn’t, it’s hard to say, whatever). So this detailed mention of disillusionment and heartbreak is very relevant, and a perfect way to draw in Zoomers.

The following singles were “Oceans & Engines” and “High School In Jakarta.” Both are bittersweet and mid-tempo, with the latter having more energy with sputtering synthesizers and catchy melodies. That song, “High School In Jakarta,” is one example of Zefanya’s preoccupation with the past. It doesn’t come across as nostalgic or sentimental; “High School In Jakarta” watches her literally living in her teenage years: “You don’t text at all and only call when you’re off your face / I’m petty and say, ‘Call me when you’re not unstable’ / I lie and tell you I’ll be getting drunk at Rachel’s,” she intones, and it’s not hard to believe for a moment that she actually is inside of these moments. At 23, she’s not too far removed from them. But she’s wise for her age — she reflects on these memories with a newfound sense of maturity. “The Goo Goo Dolls are dead to me the way you should be, too / But you bring them up along with how much I f*cking miss you,” she confesses on the resentful “Backburner,” a song grappling with a relationship where love and hate are intertwined.

Many young pop stars make the mistake of trying to find hits in vague anthems full of generalizations in an attempt to be universal, but Zefanya is not interested in that. Through specificity, she connects with her fans and comes across as completely relatable, proving that despite fame she’s also just a person. And Nicole dives into the depths of her heart, even if what’s there isn’t totally pretty. “I wish I never met you / You are the worst thing that I’m still keeping tabs on / For some stupid reason,” she sings on the peppy “Keeping Tabs,” a track buoyed by an exuberant rhythm.

In the press release, Zefanya said, “During the pandemic I did a deep dive of the archived videos from the YouTube channel I started in middle school, and realized that those songs are where my heart is. I wasn’t trying to ace an assignment; I didn’t care what constitutes a radio hit.” These two elements — ruminating on the past and not aiming for radio hits — make Nicole an album that feels like a warm welcome. Her recollections of high school can make the listener feel like they’re her old friend, and Zefanya is catching them up on what they’ve missed. Her reckonings with love are often so simultaneously thoughtful and whimsical, approaching Taylor Swift-level genius: “I ripped my heart out and put it in your hands in hopes that you’d put up a fight / How paradoxical since now all I can think about is when will we stop trying,” she sings on the 1989-esque “Autumn.”

The album, the singer has said, is about her first major heartbreak, followed by leaving her hometown for college. It pulsates with this youthful intensity — the way it feels like life-or-death at the time. The switch from high school student to university student is invigorating but also intimidating, and paired with a breakup it’s life-changing. It can feel like going through a weird metamorphosis. This sensation is present on “Milk Teeth,” a brief serenade that has the lush, gentle texture of Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher The song portrays a relentless paranoia in the midst of deep love: “What if I make you pancakes / But you choose to skip breakfast / What if when you’re fully awake / You come to your senses?” She sounds as if she’s had her heart broken millions of times and has lived countless lives, with soft-spoken, sharp insights.

The record ends with the five-minute “Take A Chance With Me,” a ballad moved along by perky plucking and enchanting lyrics overflowing with affection. The chorus consists of Zefanya’s isolated, earnest vocals singing in something of a plea: “Why can’t we for once / Say what we want, say what we feel / Why can’t you for once / Disregard the world and run to what you know is real / Take a chance with me.” Zefanya is practically begging for communication and honesty in a way that’s endlessly relatable. After all of the songs dealing with frustration and longing, “Take A Chance With Me” is the perfect ending, finding the right words and saying them as clearly as possible. Though the lines are posed as questions, they feel like answers and resolutions that close the album on an inspiring, satisfying note.