Last year, Ngaiire returned with an astounding record, known simply as 3. The artist née Ngaiire (rhymes with diary) Joseph hails from Papua New Guinea and happened to create my favorite album of 2016, Blastoma; her 2021 record was no less impressive. She told NME that she was particularly focused on creating complex harmonies and backing vocals, and that’s only one detail (and fairly minor in context) of 3. She wrote this album during and after life-changing situations, including a difficult pregnancy and a visit to her home country for the first time in 20 years. And she had a personal renaissance of confidence and artistic expression. Her world has changed enough in the past few years that she refuses to go back to dulling her shine for a cold industry.
It may sound obvious, but three is a significant number for the record. Before you boo me: it’s not only the title and name of the opening track, it also is her third studio record (Beyoncé vibes). Her son had his third birthday last year, a huge milestone considering Ngaiire was in what she has described as a lethal amount of pain while she carried him. And of course there are little moments dotted throughout that reference the prime number including a chant of 1, 2, 3 in “Takeover.” The opener prepared us for this moment, instructing “when I count to three/let go.” But for the optimal experience, consider letting go now and never going back.
The vibrancy of this record seems to stem from her trip back to PNG, both directly and indirectly. Being reimmersed in her culture must have been akin to taking a deep-soak spiritual bath, reinvigorating her at her core and also providing new stories for her to tell across 3’s ten tracks. Often her characters yearn for love and lust and heartbreak, but the final track has its own message. “Kill all the preachers,” the Papuan sings on “Glitter,” after conjuring images of women at the feet of colonizers. (As a testament to the gripping music—produced by Jack Grace and mastered by Andrei Eremin—I had no idea how dark the lyrics were until I looked them up.)
Ngaiire’s voice has always been the number one draw for her music, and she uses her gift to its utmost. Her incredibly deliberate backing vocals make this album a rich experience that relies less and less upon the instrumentation. There are lines in “Takeover” that seem to hit every note on the scale! Not only does she convey rivers of emotion (“Shoestring”) and sensuality (“Closer”) through her voice, but she is also layered so heavily that the record should more rightly be considered gospel, sung by a choir of one. She also often sticks to a register that is incredibly fun to sing along with; there’s nothing like a car ride with Ngaiire on the aux.
The rhythms in “Him” are ripe for amateur accompaniment, yet sometimes it feels wrong to sing it with such ferocity on my commute to work. As the Guardian elegantly put it, the track “bristles with the urgency of a mother desperate to create an uncomplicated world for her child.” Coupled with the love letter referenced on “Shoestring,” “Him” was a letter of another kind, implicitly addressed to her unborn son. Ngaiire’s pregnancy complications were a direct result of her childhood cancer, referenced in title of her previous album, and in this song we can hear how scared she is—not to die per se, but to leave a child in a world without his mother. “Tell him when I left here/It was never outta fear/Tell him that I’m always near,” she begs.
I feel like every time I hang out with Ngaiire, a good cry is usually involved. Blastoma was an anchor for me after a surprising loss that I found hard to process. Every song reminded me of my sadness and I found a lot of comfort in the projections; it was later that I realized how much joy there was to the record that I had missed. That particular mistake hasn’t been repeated, though 3 found me in a deep depression when my emotions were askew. I idly heard the album and knew it was great, but when I really sat down and listened to it, I was sobbing by track three. The outro of “Shoestring,” where Ngaire makes unambiguous declarations of love in a contagious melody, completely obliterated me.
Ngaiire has outdone herself, literally. She poured her soul into 3 and it reflects back a moving personal history atop a radiant community tapestry spanning lives lived in Papua New Guinea and Australia. I’d call it a magnum opus but I wouldn’t want to clip Ngaiire’s wings ahead of her next brilliant release.