In 2018, NIKI asked an important question: “What the f—’s love?” On her first EP Zephyr, she took a catchy cache of indie-girl intonations and delivered a work that easily captured the full spectrum of what she thought love could be. At its best, it’s full of lust; at its worst, it’s a liability.
Her previous works, such as the single “I Like U,” often show the singer frantically searching for a guide to navigate the way love leaves her vulnerable to reality. But in Moonchild, her debut album released Sept. 10, she’s abandoned that quest altogether. Instead, she’s opting to write her own version of it.
The music videos released for this album are rife with celestial computer-generated imaging, with NIKI looking otherworldly as she dons a platinum blonde wig and delicate slip dress. On the surface, it looks to be a journey concerned only with aesthetics, but she doesn’t shy away from allowing herself to be genuine. The result is a dreamy dive into maturity, building off all the pain and pleasure she’s worked through in the past few years.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of the 21-year-old’s work is that she understands and elegantly articulates all the trials and tribulations of girlhood. “It’s hard being a girl!” she declared when discussing her song “Indigo” in a Genius video. In “Wide Open,” the album’s foreword, NIKI repeatedly reminds herself of the rules that come with being a woman in this world. Running through a series of warnings, she belts out ominously, “Watch your back, watch your step/ Watch your weight, watch your words too.”
NIKI traverses between various genres on Moonchild. Ranging from the pop-heavy “Plot Twist,” which follows a girl testing the waters with love, to “Drive On,” a country-inspired track mixed with inklings of pop synth. The album’s strongest point, however, is that these varied and experimental sounds are all intertwined for one purpose: Moonchild is a love letter to the moon itself.
NIKI dedicates ode “Selene” to the lunar Greek goddess herself. The story goes that Selene fell in love with mortal Endymion and cast a spell on him, placing him in an eternal slumber so she could admire him until the end of time. On “Selene,” NIKI is just as bewitched by the goddess, admitting “She got me possessed.” Her voice is breathy, her uneven exhales purposeful to capture the feeling of breathtaking desire. The dream-pop song transports listeners to a world where only love is allowed to be on the brain.
Elsewhere, “Nightcrawlers” is full of frantic sprechstimme, fast and unnerving in her determination and admiration of her defiant youth. The brisk tempo of “Nightcrawlers” is smeared with overconfidence, a song drunk on thrills of the night.
Even though the album is filled with trend-adhering pop bops, NIKI’s strongest song is the ballad “Lose.” Done in one take, as she revealed in a Twitter post, the song is stripped down to raw emotions — just her at the piano, reminiscing over painful memories. It comes to a heartbreaking crescendo where she declares love “bullshit.”
While there are certainly moments for a little vitriol, the singer still leaves room for plenty of self-reflection. “And I know/ Whatever this is ain’t love,” she struggles to admit on the track on “Lose,” before quietly asking “What’s the use?” It’s evident that NIKI no longer wants to keep struggling: The song finishes on a note of regret — not because any relationship of hers is on the fritz, but more so because she can’t help but mourn the strength she once had.
There’s a painting displayed in the Louvre that shows the Greek god Zephyr parting branches to allow Selene to visit the object of her affection. In much the same way, the EP Zephyr cleared the path to a much more mature version of NIKI that we get to see on Moonchild. There are times when love doesn’t go right, when life doesn’t fit into any fantasy and shows instead a bleak picture of the real world. On Moonchild, NIKI opts to embrace these moments: She isn’t afraid to admit when she’s wrong or hurting, allowing herself to grow instead. It’s a fantastic debut piece that sounds ethereal enough to be plucked from the stars themselves.
Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].