There’s a moment at the end of "It Means I Love You" where Jessy Lanza grabs you by the chin and demands your attention. The track empties out and the beat drops away. She’s making the only sound that matters. "Look into my eyes, boy: it means I love you." It’s a marked change from the song’s frenetic first four minutes, in which Lanza slowly cranks up the humidity and pace until it’s just about to boil over. It’s like she’s sending a message: you don’t need to live life at that breakneck speed. All you need to do is focus.
I watched her perform the song live a few months ago with a skeletal stage setup — just a drummer and her own keyboards — and the audience was rapt, erupting in cheers when the beat disappeared. It’s a showy move, one that’s indicative of the leap Lanza is making with her new album Oh No. (It’s her second full-length release for the venerated British electronic label Hyperdub.) She’s stepping to the forefront of her music and taking command instead of positioning herself as a piece of a larger puzzle.
Lanza’s 2013 debut Pull My Hair Back sounds more impressive now than it did upon its release: it’s cool, restrained, and a little enigmatic. If it had a weak spot, it was Lanza’s decision to minimize the prominence of her voice, a strange and versatile instrument. She was treating a strength the way you’d expect someone to treat a weakness. In the years between Pull My Hair Back and Oh No, she established herself as an in-demand collaborator largely because of that voice. She was a featured player on Caribou’s excellent LP Our Love, gliding over the slippery synths of "Second Chance." She teamed up with Morgan Geist as The Galleria a year later for "Calling Card" and "Mezzanine," two effervescent pieces of cheesy freestyle. And when she returned to music under her own name with "You Never Show Your Love," a single featuring footwork veterans DJ Spinn and Taso, she sounded like a woman transformed: confident, playful, and unafraid to embrace a voice that defies convention.
Her voice is like a jack-in-the-box
All of that work pays dividends on Oh No. Lanza is undeniable, even as she’s singing from within a network of hyper-speed rhythms and bright, fizzy synths. If listening to these songs is like visiting toy stores — entering spaces within which everything is designed to demand your attention — her voice is the jack-in-the-box that ricochets off the ceiling, the racecar taking jumps off a plastic ramp and clattering to the floor. It’s also newly versatile: each song feels like it’s giving voice to a different facet of her personality. "VV Violence" takes the rhythm and energy of a schoolyard taunt and channels it into a sarcastic retort; on songs like "Never Enough," she opts for a softer and more readily melodic approach.
When Lanza chooses the straightforward vocal route, it’s usually because there’s something menacing chugging underneath the surface. Irritation pulses through Oh No: you can hear them in the album’s dizzying rhythms, in the synths that slowly warp and curdle around Lanza’s voice. "I totally rage out about irrational things that I’d be embarrassed to share with people I care about, let alone people that don’t know me," said Lanza in an interview with Thump. "I really hate that about myself, that I can’t just be more relaxed." It may be a troublesome personality trait, but it gives her music a compelling edge. A song like "Going Somewhere" might’ve been a straightforward plea for affection in someone else’s hands. In Lanza’s, you can’t escape the self-doubt and desperation churning in plain sight.
"I hate... that I can't just be more relaxed"
That doesn’t mean Oh No’s a total bummer. The album’s also shaped by Lanza’s enthusiasm for Japan’s electro-pop golden age, a turn-of-the-decade period in the ‘70s and ‘80s when artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Miharu Koshi were embracing their unconventional voices and the possibilities of technology. Oh No was created with the sound of the resulting music in mind, and it achieves the same kind of idiosyncratic feel. It takes pop structure and concision, electronic textures, and a vocal approach rooted in R&B, and stuffs them in a blender.
Lanza made Oh No alongside her partner, Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan, and that band’s own 2016 album Big Black Coat makes for the perfect complementary listen. (Lanza’s emphasized that the production is collaborative, rather than the stereotypical male-producer-female-vocalist division of labor, a mistake some people — myself included — made in writing about her earlier work.) The albums have different goals: Big Black Coat is oblique, dance-oriented, and heavily processed where Oh No is direct and concise. But they’re linked by texture and pace, and taken together they paint an appealing picture: two people exploring the music that excites and challenges them, an endeavor that’s now yielded two distinct collections of new material.