Yaeji Owns Her Peculiar Strain of Crazy Cool on ‘What We Drew’
The enigmatic artist known as Yaeji can be accurately described as a product of her environment. She was born in the Flushing, Queens neighborhood of New York, a predominately East Asian melting pot in the city where hip-hop was born. At age five, she moved to Atlanta, a locale that has been more instrumental than even New York in more recent hip-hop history. She moved to South Korea, the land that has finally demanded overdue attention thanks to the likes of BTS and company. Constantly moving from one international school to another, she found her only stable place on the Internet, the ultimate cosmopolitan musical marketplace. Out of all this arose a style that defies categorization. Yaeji raps with a consummate swag gleaned from New York and ATL, and produces beats that excavate the stylings of ‘90s house with the type of unabashed hipster irony that thrives in cyberspace. She shuttles back and forth between English and Korean with an adventurous whimsy consistent in spirit with the cartoonish outlandishness of K-pop.
Yaeji created a stir early on in 2016 with her first single “New York ‘93” and her cover of “Guap” by DJ Mall Grab, and drew further attention the following year with her remix of Drake’s “Passionfruit” and a celebrated Boiler Room Session. By the time of her second EP, with singles like “Raingurl” and “Drink I’m Sippin On,” the word had spread that was a sensation quite unlike anything else. After much anticipation, Yaeji now releases her debut full-length “What We Drew,” a consistently weird and wacky mixtape that showcases her in all her glory. Blending house and hip-hop, English and Korean, infectious tunes and absurdist humor, it’s among the freshest releases of 2020.
“My Imagination” begins with woozy synth washes and a barebones kick drum pulse. Yaeji’s voice emerges in a cluster of treated tracks, pitched up and down, delayed, and mutating in real time. As always, she speaks and sings in a perpetual whisper, coy and delicate, and this gives the sound of her voice an instant intimacy, a particularly human feel that contrasts with the mechanical nature of her monotone, repetitive utterances. At once, you know you’re in for an odd listen. Yaeji mumbles, “If you follow me in this moment I chose, right in this moment,” and you’d only make out the words if you spoke Korean, but the sound alone effectively conveys the feeling — curiously confident, whimsical, and outlandish. She goes on to repeat the eponymous phrase like a mantra, and the stage is set.
“What We Drew” draws you into Yaeji’s world, a mellow sonic space of slurred animation. The first proper song, if you could even call it that, is instantly infectious. There’s a certain effortlessness at the core that shapes and defines the sound and feel, a bit like indie aloofness taken to a new extreme. A ramshackle beat, video game instrumental tomfoolery, and more hushed, mumbled, processed vocals make for a smooth, subdued sound. Things take a left turn on “In Place,” a deliciously off-kilter production that strongly recalls the solo work of Thom Yorke since 2006’s ”The Eraser.” Looped, scrambled vocal snippets echo, blur, and come in and out of phase over an odd kick drum pulse, skittering hi hats, and droning synth bass. It’s a thoroughly glitchy affair that makes the relative straightforwardness of the next song “When I Grow Up” come as catharsis. Think computer jazz, Dance Dance Revolution, and ample open space. There has to be an element of humor to this, but Yaeji’s unshakable deadpan makes it all a bit hard to make sense of. Eventually, you simply have to follow her in the moment, as she instructed in the intro. Here, she switches back and forth casually between English and Korean, and delivers her catchy chorus with a nonchalance that it’s truly something else. A two-step, UK garage beat drops eventually, and by the end, the song is a total banger.
“Money Can’t Buy” is easily the most hard-hitting track so far. Seconds into the song, you can hear and feel an unprecedented amount of swag. Over a tight groove of siren kicks and madcap, distorted percussive shuffles, Yaeji sing, raps, and whispers with the type of very Euro quasi hip-hop stylings that abounded in early ‘90s dance crossover. Guest rapper Nappy Nina feeds off the feel and drops a short verse that adds some flavorful variety. Three new names, Trenchcoat, Lil Fayo and Sweet Pea, join Yaeji on “Free Interlude,” although you’d be pressed to figure out who contributed what. A bit of a sci fi, cartoonish oddity, the track is full of pitched up, yet seemingly slowed down voices. There are echoes of the deconstructed stylings of Slum VIllage, as well as the jokier productions of electronic acts like Mr. Oizo. Stops and starts, tempo changes, and a crisp minimal ending make for an especially dynamic listen. The lyrics are proudly nonsensical, with statements like “Yeah my ammo is throwing ammo’s, that’s my ammo, I’m like glammo.” Again, just follow Yaeji in the moment.
If one had to pick out a representative lyric, a fair choice would be “Intro verse from an introvert” from “Spell,” featuring guest rappers YonYon and G.L.A.M. This is geek chic fare of a come-as-you-are strain consistent in spirit with the casual throwaway humor and whimsy of such a line. You can practically hear Yaeji dancing about on this one, as she raps harmonized with herself to insistent snares, organ and goofy neon sounds. There’s another quirky, catchy melody, more tempo changes, and all sorts of unpredictable detours to this funhouse fair. The music reaches a peak on “Waking Up Down,” an absolute standout. All the cool craziness with which Yaeji has been confounding us since the opening track suddenly comes together with an unanticipated potency now. The chorus will stick with you, with its stoic, meditative repetition over droney synth bass and melodies that meander freely in the backdrop. The nonsensical lyrics function as a sort of disclaimer, a badge of verifiable, free-spirited disregard. You’ve heard countless rappers boast endlessly about all the things they’ve got down. Yaeji ushers in a bold new development in this practice, rapping, “I got waking up down / I got cooking down… I got hydrating down.”
“In the Mirror” is another key track, full of color and personality. Over a basic beat with an obstinate squeak, growling bass enters and shifts through stereo, warbling and mutating. In her airy, wispy voice, Yaeji repeats the same line over and over, in an example of minimalism at its most effective. The constancy is such that when a harmony finally enters, it has been more than satisfyingly built up. Out of the blue, there’s a proper drop and eruption into a full ‘90s house of the most designedly tacky type. “The Thing” enlists Victoria Sin and Shy One, and proceeds freely into still sillier sounds. The sultry spoken vocals, over a beat sure to set bodies in motion, ponder existential musings of humorously feigned profundity, starting, “What if it all was just the same? / What if we all would just become one thing?” and developing into such nonsense as “What if you had to be the thing / In order to know the thing. The beat, full of zaps, sounds as if Yaeji is pushing pads with great gusto, bedroom producing in full costume.
Yaeji seems to really relish the type of jazz chords that abounded in ‘80s dance music, and aged so horribly that they vanished in a flash to only resurface in cases of the most dedicated irony. She indulges these sounds on “These Days,” and even brings in horns for a bit of free jazz drivel, while again sticking to a mantra, the titular phrase. The mix of retro house stylings and kitsch jazz appropriation recalls the sounds of Bjork’s 1993 “Debut.” Finally, “Never Settling Down” brings more of the wild percussion heard on “Money Can’t Buy,” with arbitrary drum inserts looped in a cycle of regular, repeated disruptions. Over this, the laidback sound of new age synth pads carries Yaeji, as she insists, “I’m never having to admit that I swallowed my feelings.” Indeed, she doesn’t seem to be holding anything back, and considering how delightfully weird this all is, you have to take her at her word.
There is not a dull moment on “What We Drew.” Every sound on every song serves a purpose, and strikes a chord. Listeners will likely find themselves first taken aback, but nodding, and ultimately shrugging and dancing. Yaeji’s sonic template and her stoic, deadpan, mumblecore musings are an alien creation with no notable antecedents. It’s the type of act one might be inclined to dismiss as gimmickry — an example of style over substance. However, the style essentially is the substance. The goofy sound design and the intentionally nonsensical lyrics are two sides of the same coin. Yaeji has spoken of how singing in Korean to a largely English-speaking audience allows her a hiding place in her music. She has gone on to clarify that she initially failed to account for the fact that Korean speakers would understand her. This is more telling than it might seem at face value, as it cuts to the core of Yaeji’s attitude and aesthetic. This music is all about acting on impulse. It’s about trying on new outfits and going for wild rides. Yaeji has a one-of-a-kind voice and her surrealist blend of hip-hop and ‘90s house is elemental and infectious, frivolous and fun.
“What We Drew” is available April 2 on Apple Music.