Artists to Watch in 2018: yaeji
Across two stellar EPs this year, no one has crystallised the emotion of club-based introspection better than New York-via-Seoul producer, YAEJI.
With a focus on texture, colours and subtle emotionality, listening to Yaeji’s idea of house music feels like you’re listening to the club through the walls of a nearby bathroom that you’ve retreated to for a breather. Her cover of Drake’s ‘Passionfruit’ takes the dancehall-inflected bounce of the original and reduces it to barely a whisper, moving the focus to the loneliness being expressed in Yaeji’s raw vocals. If Drake’s version intoxicates you with its drowsiness, then Yaeji’s is an intimate dream, destined for the afterglow of the morning after.
In this way, her music looks to suspend this mood of transcendent introspection, saying in an interview that: “It’s crazy, especially at clubs, because DJs create a mood, and sometimes the experience is to just be in that bubble they’re creating and meditate in it.”
Deep subs, intricately timed hi-hats and submerged beats float beneath a surface of pillowy synths and whispery vocals delivered in a flow that flaunts the cadences and internal rhymes and rhythms of a fully-qualified rapper. The vocals, often technically imperfect and accentuated with light touches of autotune, fluctuate between Korean and English as if there were no lines between the two, sometimes starting a line in one and ending in another. Stylistically, the music shares this trait – listen to how seamlessly her Korean rapping sits atop the deep, Southern trap of ‘Drink I’m Sippin’ On’.
After first attending school in Atlanta, Yaeji’s parents moved her back to South Korea for fear that she was losing her heritage, before she moved to Pittsburgh to study for college, and adopting an interest in DJing and producing. After finishing college, she based herself out of New York, immersing herself in this new world of dance music, and hosting a weekly DIY gathering called ‘Curry in No Hurry’, in which she and her musician friends would play each other their new music and socialise over bowls of curry (she’s since partnered with local Korean restaurants to serve curry before her live shows).
You can hear each of these places represented in her music, and her personal story is likely to resonate with anyone of a similarly antipodean background. By bringing you into her space – a borderless, transitory space where the dominant mode of expression is inexpression and you exist within a near-constant state of in-betweens – Yaeji filters her work through the prism of her own cultural experience.
Her songwriting is introspective and shares the wry, low-key observational humour of fellow-Brooklynite James Murphy, focusing on themes of therapy, her Korean identity, and cultural difference. She touches on these ideas in ‘Feel It Out’, when she notes that, “Other countries they are having more than coffee / Shit is crazy / Shit is Yaeji / Gotta feel it out”. In contrast, though, the music itself is only interested in the most sincere, unironic expressions of joy. It’s this exchange that allows Yaeji’s music to balance the duality of her transcendent introspection.
In this sense, ‘raingurl’ is not only the breakthrough single, but Yaeji’s most fully realised articulation of her vision to date. It’s an effortlessly infectious track that validates why her ability to exist between musical worlds and the shy personality that infuses her work has established her potential for widespread crossover appeal this year and beyond.
In 2017, Yaeji was the most exciting, diverse new voice to emerge in dance music; in 2018, the rest of the world will catch up.
WORDS BY KYLE FENSOM