Photo by Fabian Guerrero
My favorite line from Us, the sophomore full-length record from Empress Of, appears in “Love for Me,” as an explanation for living life to the fullest: “The whole world spins on a thin string / Touché let’s get up off our seat.” Of course, you will be hard pressed to find a spare moment to sit as you listen to the LA-born artist’s recent release, making that song, and by proxy the other nine, a huge success. Beyond that, Us represents a completely new outlook compared to her 2015 LP, Me—one that embraces community.
Empress Of was never one for meekness, and yet the new album is still the bravest release in her discography. The production is adventurous and flexible. She trusts her instincts and makes bilingual appeals for others to do the same of her (“Trust Me Baby”) and wears her emotions on her sleeve, as they course through her fingers and bones (“I’ve Got Love”). Difficult moments always find compromise quickly if not amicably, and sometimes the compromise has to come from within. All circumstances remain empowering for listeners.
The artist born Lorely Rodriguez opens her arms to all on the new record. Literally so—on the cover, she is sitting with shoulders and hips spread wide, a welcoming gesture. She appeared to have the exact opposite body language on Me, whose title also acknowledges a more internal journey than what she goes through on Us. Even song titles stand out as contrast: “Everything to Me” vs “Everything is You” or “When I’m With Him” vs “Need Myself.”
In light of the contrasts, the albums are not opposites—they are complementary. Me forged a path of self-love and Us paved it, proving that we are nothing without our friends, family, and lovers too. There is still plenty of focus given to insecurities, but there is a strength in owning weakness. On “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” she admits the drug gives her anxiety, but she trusts her partner: “I don’t always know what to say, but you always understand.” Not to mention, confidence breeds authority, as in the tense moments of “All For Nothing”: “This love is draining us dry, all I wanna is it all for nothing?”
Rodriguez has become a pillar for the Latinx indie movement in America, bringing bilingualism to her lyrics in the new record. This isn’t her first use of the Spanish language in her music, but they were notably absent from Me; she told the Fader that singing in the other tongue feels like an “alter ego”: necessary to use when the limits of English become apparent. At one point, she had put out a cover of her own single which she’d called “Agua Agua”—my favorite version of the song—but it was removed after the promotional cycle for the album was complete. That was little more than an afterthought a few years ago, but just as the language itself is inextricably tied to her life, it is slowly finding its way to the forefront of her music.
On Us, Rodriguez had access to the best local and/or Latinx talent, including DJ Dodger Stadium and Chrome Sparks, who co-produced some songs; models and creatives José Hernandez and Gabriela Ruiz who appear in music videos; and Rodriguez herself, as she made her directorial debut this year with two of those videos. She has been pushing through the industry her entire career, and in that time, there have only been disruptions in how an artist can make a living. After putting herself through the ringer to make her last album by herself, it follows that Us takes advantage of her personal network of friends.
Even though she owes no one for her own success, Empress Of honors people that support and guide her in order to pay it forward for future artists. Her growth—as a citizen, friend, and artist—doesn’t stop here.