The other week I had the brief delight of finding and almost immediately destroying a very rare cassette.
The store owner had no clue who the ‘80s J-pop chanteuse Miharu was, but after hearing me gush about her long-time producer, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, he sold it for a reasonable $6 — a steal considering this release can sell for more than 10 times that. Not long after hitting play, however, Miharu’s coo and Hosono’s electronic ordainments spun into a warped fit. The tape broke, and the resulting flurry of sputtering and stretched pop was the sound of my cassette-player eating and eventually choking on music. Hearing that tape go off like fireworks would be hard to replicate, but Jessy Lanza’s new album, Oh No, gets pretty close.
Lanza made a strong statement with her Hyperdub debut, Pull My Hair Back, and Oh No brings a refined focus and splashes of color to the skewed R&B that couches her shapeshifting voice. Coincidentally, the album is the result of a life-long fascination with Yellow Magic Orchestra and Hosono’s production work, which she harnesses with the help of Junior Boy Jeremy Greenspan.
Despite working together for many years, their chemistry has never felt more potent than on Oh No’s taut, pummeling singles ‘VV Violence’ and ‘It Means I Love You’, where Lanza weaves like a boxer through the aggressive, minimalist productions. On the latter, she shaves the song to its most skeletal beat before lifting off to a breathy a cappella peak. It’s a knockout blow you can tell she’s been preparing for the entire album.
At its brightest, Oh No brings Junior Boys’ blocky, neon overload to a new place altogether with the help of Lanza’s R&B-indebted voice. Opener ‘New Ogi’ glides on a melody that shimmers with the Junior Boys best — but still gets outdone by Lanza’s silvery intonement: “Just look in my eyes and you’ll see it”. The bursting title track, meanwhile, surrounds her with exotic sounds like the greenhouse plant life that inspired the recording and appears on the cover.
For all that frenetic energy, Lanza hits her most human and honest moments when she slows down. The color washed ‘I Talk BB’ glows with intimacy over a series of careful climaxes. With strobing organs and music-box melodies, ‘Going Somewhere’ almost sounds like Beach House in fast-forward, but it’s balanced by the album’s most vulnerable confessions (“I just want to impress you”) which gives way to the brave plea: “Just say you love me”.
It’s Lanza’s control of the fluidity between songwriting and production that makes Oh No more than simply one of the year’s best pop albums (it is). Like my moment of confused wonder at hearing the Miharu tape get torn apart, Lanza dances on the line between experimental and pop music at a time when it’s never been finer. As the swirling closer ‘Could Be U’ makes clear — Lanza deserves to be in the same discussion as James Blake and FKA twigs.
When Oh No comes out this Friday, many will be celebrating a special anniversary from her label Hyperdub. Burial’s self-titled debut is turning 10, and despite the difference in sound, it’s a testament to their staying power that they’re still walking a line of their own a decade later. For about half that time, Lanza has been walking her own path, and with the brilliant Oh No, we’ve just entered the best part yet.
Oh No will be released on Friday via Hyperdub. Listen to Jessy Lanza’s recent FACT mix.