Growth, Globalism and a Gentle Hammer: Yaeji Arrives as a Major Artiste
Yaeji’s debut album With A Hammer starts tentatively.
At first, all you hear are some quiet woodwind toots and chirps that could be an ensemble tuning up, could be the start of a minimalist classical piece, could be a jazz band working its way into an improvisation.
Or maybe, as more obviously musical phrases start playing across one another, it could be samples cut up and about to turn into a dance groove.
After all, Yaeji (also known as Kathy Lee) has come to prominence with the steady rhythms of house music underpinning her productions.
But no, the track “Submerge FM” doesn’t do anything obvious.
First a drone chord comes in, sounding a little like harmonised vocoders, then Yaeji’s sweet singing in Korean replaces the darting woodwind, switching to English after a line or two.
It’s only halfway through the track, at almost the two-minute mark, that a beat comes in – and it’s a simple 1980s pop-funk rhythm, with Yaeji’s voice bouncing gently through, and production as crisp and odd as the most leftfield dance track.
Is it pop? Is it experimental? Is it club music? Is it indie?
Yes, all of the above – and none at the same time.
It’s followed by the already-big single “For Granted”, which is even more pop, even more funk, even more cute and delicate – but with an equally confounding structure, ending in a jungle finale a la Pink Panthress, Piri & Tommy or Nia Archives.
So, it goes on. There’s mellow jazz with glitches and heavily autotuned vocals in “I’ll Remember For Me, I’ll Remember For You”. There’s distorted electro-punk in “Michin”.
There are all kinds of hints of trap, house, hyperpop, weird electronica, even Afrobeats actoss the album. And yet at no point does it feel like “fusion”.
Every one of these elements flow together as one.
It’s like she has captured all the elements we identified feeding into modern alt-pop last year, and more besides – but, firstly, brought an entirely fresh perspective to the entire musical spectrum, and secondly, gently, subtly bent everything in to new shapes to suit her unique personality.
Of course, Korean musicians have demonstrated a distinct ability to get those new perspective on modern styles, as we noted back in 2020. But there are many more layers to Yaeji’s approach than that.
She had an itinerant upbringing, in South Korea, Japan and various parts of the US, which combined Korean tradition, Christianity and a very modern outlook.
Wherever she lived she was an outsider, apart from moments in Christian youth camp and later in nightclubs where she described finding not just community but space for self-reflection.
Since her public evolution as a musician began, she has consistently used her platform to advocate for queer and trans people of colour, directly in interviews and the choice of music in DJ sets and radio broadcasts, but also more subtly in music – by merging flavours and undercurrents from many kinds of music from the margins in ways that signalled deep histories of trauma and resistance.
To do this successfully has required an incredibly sharp ear and sense of musicality, to be able to bring all these elements together into a language that’s her own, but also pays respect to those whose influences she’s absorbed.
It has also required immense sensitivity and sense of poise: gentleness and intimacy are the first things that strike you about Yaeji’s music, but there is weight and confrontation there too – to combine these things takes incredibly subtle balance in production and arrangement.
And it has required a complete transcendence or deconstruction of traditional oppositions of east/west, pop/alternative, modern/traditional, introspective/social.
All of this was latent in Yaeji’s EPs and mixtapes from 2017 onwards – they all certainly had plenty of richness, complexity and emotional punch.
But they were still beholden to distinct rhythms: mostly hip hop and house, with occasional forays into UK bass styles like two-step garage and drum’n’bass.
With A Hammer, however, cuts loose from that.
From that seemingly tentative – but actually devastatingly confident – start on, there’s no knowing where a track is going.
Those familiar rhythms are still there, but they’re just part of a much wider exercise of sonic world building: constructing a world which you have no choice but to enter on its own terms.
Yaeji was already an undeniable talent and deserving of all the hype surrounding her, but this album is her arrival as a truly major artiste.
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All Images: Dasom Han
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.