With her sophomore effort, Us, the Los Angeles-based Empress Of—née Lorely Rodriguez—maintains her distinctive knack for crisp production, unguarded lyricism, and artful melodies. But where the alt-R&B auteur’s 2015 debut, Me, was mired in tricky and at times blinkered introspection, the aptly titled Us‘s scope is decidedly more universal. Even Rodriguez’s posture—sitting spread-eagled, her arms open—on the album cover suggests a less insular stance, a stark contrast to the black-and-white figure posing with one hand shielding her mouth on the cover of Me.
What’s immediately striking about Us is how blissful the music is. Cuts like Me‘s “How Do You Do It” and “To Get By” featured charging BPMs and house flourishes, but the synths were so blistering, even menacing, that they scanned as post-apocalyptic. By contrast, the tropical “Just the Same” goes down like frothy cream soda. “Try to count every star in the sky, if you’re going to ask me how much I love you,” Rodriguez sings, her voice darting from note to note like a songbird. She imbues a similar wonder to the space-age disco stomp “I’ve Got Love.” For Rodriguez, love is a lot like electricity, transmittable and galvanizing: “I’ve got love running through my fingers and my bones.”
Elsewhere, Rodriguez complicates this euphoric depiction of love, turning her attention to more thorny topics. “This love is draining us dry,” she laments on the jittery “All for Nothing,” a chronicle of a relationship in limbo. On the bilingual “Trust Me Baby,” she confronts an insecure lover about his trust issues, recounting a heated fight in a car. Even in the midst of the maelstrom, though, Rodriguez musters up some optimism for love: “We could do each other more love than harm, if you just trust me baby,” she croons earnestly.
Us‘s enduring charm lies in its articulation of the giddy uncertainty that comes from fully trusting someone, of having your world depend precariously on the whims of another person. But the payoff is worth it, Rodriguez says, on “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” where she relates how her lover is so comforting that he can even relieve the anxiety that smoking marijuana conjures in her. With Us, Rodriguez candidly approaches the barbs of relationships but still manages to come out with a rose-colored vision of pair-bonding in all its reckless thrills. Considerably brighter, both thematically and tonally, than its predecessor, the album ascertains the guileless exhilaration of love.