Credit: Strut Entertainment
by Kayla Beardslee Music Obscure Object

mxmtoon — Rising

June 9, 2022

mxmtoon’s latest doesn’t yet have the feel of a finished product, but it still offers a nice primer on the current shape of Gen-Z pop.

mxmtoon (the stage name of singer-songwriter Maia, last name private) got her start in 2018 as a YouTuber making ukulele-based, Gen-Z indie pop. Her most popular song to date, 2019’s “Prom Dress,” is full of exactly the kind of bashful ukulele strums and twee, xylophone-esque chimes you would expect from that description. “Prom Dress” is cute, catchy, and compositionally decent, but doesn’t cast its gaze much further than the walls of high school, and though other songs on her first album The Masquerade tackle topics like mental health and relationships, the project is fairly limited musically. Her 2020 release Dawn & Dusk, a compilation of two EPs, was slow and reflective with a slightly expanded instrumental palette and more varied vocal processing. (Maia started from literal bedroom pop, after all.) Rising is mxmtoon’s second studio album, and it continues her artistic progression: the lyrical perspective is a little wider, the production is a little more diverse in its mix of synth and acoustic sounds, and more songs stand out from the hashtag-relatable indie-pop crowd.

One of the best tracks on Rising is “Sad Disco,” a bright dance-pop festival of synth strings complete with an ABBA reference. Plenty of other tracks lean toward upbeat fun as well: lead single “Mona Lisa,” about how the narrator wants to know what it’s like to be someone’s muse, puts Maia’s familiar ukulele and chipper melodies front and center (along with a winking art history reference to “the way that Van Gogh uses yellow / or the self in Frida Kahlo”), and “Frown” and “Learn to Love You” are cute (maybe cutesy?) reminders to keep your head up. Often the lighter arrangements merge with serious singer-songwriter topics, like how “Scales” balances conflicted emotions with bright, stuttering synths. When Maia sings “And if the whole world’s burning, hold on closer to me” on “Sad Disco”’s climate-anxious sister “Dance (End of the World),” it’s not a rhetorical statement, and neither is her question, “Will the world still be around when I turn sixty-three?” on “Victim of Nostalgia.”

Some of the songs on Rising are nothing but contemplative, such as the ballad “Florida” (“Hard to believe you’re turning eighty-one / Mourning memories with you / There is nothing left to do”). But regardless of production choices, every track is caught up in its own dilemma. Growing up and grappling with what you want out of the world is a recurring theme — “spinning around the sun twenty-one times got me dizzy,” she sings in “Dizzy,” and closing track “Coming of Age” doesn’t so much close the curtains as shred them as Maia declares, “This ain’t a coming of age anymore.” Some of her insights are vague or overly familiar (“Everyone calls them growing pains because we know the hurt”), but there are enough fresh moments to help the project cohere into a solid statement. Take “Victim of Nostalgia,” which makes a refreshing rhetorical move by refusing to rely on sappy nostalgia for easy emotional points: “And if life ain’t what you want / It don’t come back around.”

On Rising, mxmtoon continues to expand her musical style and develop her perspective as a songwriter, taking a closer look at not just the immediate moment, but the future of her career, doubts over her past choices, and questions of aging and understanding of self. While still leaving plenty of room for future growth, if you’re looking to stay up-to-date with the world of Gen-Z pop, this is a project worth picking up.

Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 1.