Within the porous boundaries of contemporary pop music, the raw power of Empress Of has the potential for world domination, writes Print Editor Thom Dent
Pop music in the modern age is a curious thing. Thriving in a world steadfastly and increasingly gripped by internet culture, the genre no longer exists as a simple byword for whatever saturated the top 40 this week. Instead, in much the same way as how sites such as YouTube have opened the door for countless new-wave filmmakers, the aesthetics and sounds of pop music are now more of a blank canvas than ever before. Anybody can create it, and anything can be pop music if approached with the right sensibility.
Empress Of, the musical project of Honduran-American songwriter and producer Lorely Rodriguez, is an artist for whom this sensibility comes naturally. Perfectly tuned to the hyperaware metamodernism of the internet Wild West, her music is as spellbinding as it is curious, as meticulously-tailored as it seems natural in the way it falls together. Whether she is piecing together indie-rock samples into patchwork glam-stomps or plucking goofball synth riffs on top of club beats, everything Rodriguez has touched thus far has helped her bloom into one of the most intriguing and interesting musicians on the planet.
‘You say I’m a fool, you say I’m an empress / What does that mean?’ begins the first track on Systems, Rodriguez’s 2013 debut EP. This lyric perfectly sums up a release characterised by its own uncertainties: a bilingual series of songs swinging between its artist’s dual nationalities and bringing together a complex soup of instrumentation and truly unique sense of melody. The results are nothing short of superb, and while Systems went relatively under the radar for a pop release, for those who were able to find it the EP marked the first bold steps into a discography that Empress Of has since expanded into a veritable sonic behemoth.
For her first few steps, Rodriguez thrived on the element of surprise. Her first full-length release, Me (2015), is worlds away from the shy, intimate affair that its monochromatic sleeve and simple title suggested. Bombastic in the extreme and containing some of the boldest popcraft of the past decade, tracks such as ‘Kitty Kat’ and ‘Threat’ gave Empress Of an aesthetic bursting with brutal energy. Meanwhile, the elasticity of singles ‘How Do You Do It’ and ‘Water Water’ provided an equally insatiable danceability that help distinguish Me as a pop debut easily malleable enough to stand up alongside some of the all-time greats.
For the most part, however, the Empress Of project is one of huge, as-of-yet untapped potential. While Rodriguez keeps on making music, she keeps improving: new single ‘When I’m With Him’, which lives comfortably on the softer side of her personality, is maybe her most chart-friendly effort yet – its textures barely more than whispers, the floating falsetto vocal as sweet as syrup and oozing with pop elegance. Taken from her upcoming sophomore record Us, ‘When I’m With Him’ is a breezy love song that is guaranteed to make even the most cold-hearted of listeners swoon, more focused than anything on her previous album and a sure sign that Empress Of is getting very close to creating that perfect formula for world domination.
But for the best glimpse of what Rodriguez is truly able to produce, her standalone 2016 single ‘Woman Is A Word’ is surely the best place to look. Championed by the likes of Gorillaz and described eloquently by Genius.com as ‘a woke-as-hell feminist slapper’, this is the barnstorming pièce de résistance of her career so far: utterly vital to music’s modern vocabulary while also harnessing the raw potential for immortality. What is more, between the deft delicacy of its instrumental and the simple power of its lyrics – ‘I’m only an image of what you see’ – ‘Woman Is A Word’ is the perfect anthem from an artist for whom ‘making music and being a woman are one and one.’
If you cannot enjoy pop music, you are entirely ignorant of its most integral modus operandi. And nobody sums up what it means to write pop music right now quite like Empress Of. There is no doubt that Lorely Rodriguez is one of the most important musicians in the world right now, and equally no doubt that it is only a matter of time before she begins to completely dominate. Either listen now, or listen once she has the world at her feet.