Three years ago, the producer and singer Lorely Rodriguez capped a steady rise to indie pop almost-stardom with Me, her precocious debut album under the moniker Empress Of. Contained and sharp, it layered diary musings over self-produced electronic flair, winning the bilingual performer praise and a guest spot on avant-pop artist Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound. If Me was unrelenting in its depictions of Rodriguez’s innerworkings, her second album, Us, isn’t so much a turn towards extroversion as a scaling back: safer and less urgent, Us often feels like an awkward middle-ground between soul baring experimentation and go-for-broke radio pop.
As with Me, Rodriguez produced the ten tracks on Us, but this time with the help of producers like DJDS and Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes. Yet despite the assistance, Us’s production is its weakest link: it trades in the artful ambitions of Me for a collection of smooth, vibey almost-beats that frequently feel on the verge of turning into something more interesting than they are. Rodriguez’s voice–lilting and flush with emotion–is lovely, but it works best when its carried by meatier, more dynamic instrumentals instead of the syrupy, trend-following mix of synths and snaps here on songs like “Timberlands” and “All For Nothing.”
Still, when Rodriguez and co. get it right, they strike gold. Her collaboration with Hynes on “Everything to Me” is muted and smoky, and features some of Rodriguez’s most vivid and humorous freeform songwriting (“Let’s go on the roof and talk some shit/We can see the city if we squint/I hate when you smoke cigarettes/You hate when I mention it”). “When I’m With Him,” Us’s strongest moment and a dark horse contender for one of the best songs of the year, has a chorus for the ages, underscoring the angst and suffocation of a dying relationship with dramatic chords and pained falsetto. It’s a near-perfect pop song: profoundly vulnerable and wildly infectious, powerfully transportive and peppered with personal drama.
Us struggles to consistently reach the vertiginous heights of “When I’m With Him” or Me, but at the album’s best, Rodriguez’s revealing narratives of fractured relationships and lonely adolescence strike somewhere deep, to the point that, if you listen close enough, her warm, whispery voice almost begins to sound like your own.