On her debut album With a Hammer, Korean-American singer, DJ, and producer Kathy Yaeji Lee, a.k.a. Yaeji, works through an intricate web of emotions and identity, blending her love of house music with hip hop beats and a laid-back, narcotized bedroom pop vocal delivery. Just a few years on, the Brooklyn-based musician’s early hyperpop releases feel like a distant memory; she shifts her sound into less erratic, more “tasteful” territory. With that comparatively subdued approach comes both an increased lyrical clarity and a pronounced lack of musical vision which makes her first LP feel like a rather tired spin on the contemporary alt-pop formula.
“Submerge FM” opens the record with a soloing flute and digital trills ripped straight from the soundbank of a Nintendo 64 game. Yaeji, flicking back and forth between English and Korean, ponders hopelessness in the digital age, her doomscrolling — “Internet said there’s nothing we can do to save the future generation,” she chirps — having instilled in her a resigned nihilism which she spends a lot of this album trying to overcome. On “For Granted” — the album’s best song — she wrestles with self-doubt, singing, “I don’t even know / Am I saying thank you? / Am I enjoying it too? / Am I taking it for granted?” The loopy tune builds continuously, its drumbeat going from half-time to full-time to a full-on breakbeat, erupting amidst a furious drum’n’bass finale.
With a Hammer‘s opening duo is serviceable, pretty good even. But “Fever,” the third track, disrupts the flow with an awkward mishmash of two-note guitar plucks and dejected, off-key vocals that morph into deadpan rapping. Booming bass blasts underneath the Korean rap verses, but only the ethereal chorus resembles something like an actual melody, with its lyrics of “Fever, it’s so yellow… And the people sing together / But who is it that you can see?” The title track’s repetitive stop-start bounce accompanies Yaeji’s dour reflections on our current post-Trump, Post-George Floyd, post-COVID moment, though lines like “There were days I gave up / And put a mask on my face, brain, and heart / To take a break from the truth / To take a break from the false” may well strike a familiar chord with many who were affected by the dark turn the world seemed to take during the past decade or so.
On a musical level, however, that same familiarity very much works to the album’s detriment. Yaeji essentially remixes the nostalgic sounds that have served as fodder for countless other inoffensively weird artists of her generation: breezy house, subtly glitchy electronica, 2000s-flavored R&B, and opaque trip hop, all brought forth in a way that seems more concerned with calculated respectability than authenticity. Considering its thematic preoccupations alone — trauma, personal growth, hardships rooted in cultural identity — With a Hammer seems destined for critical adoration and nods on the year-end lists curated by critics whose thinking grows increasingly uniform with each release that they stumble over themselves to praise as “necessary” or “important.”
Considering just how lifeless With a Hammer becomes, the longer it goes on, the laudits it has already earned are puzzling. “Away X5” is a noxiously twee synth-pop number; the cavernous “1 Thing to Smash” opens promisingly, but spins its wheels before going out on a whimper; and album closer “Be Alone in This” similarly plods along aimlessly before coming to an abrupt halt. What’s most frustrating about Yaeji’s debut, however, is that it’s not entirely devoid of intriguing ideas. The sparse, evocative brass sounds of “I’ll Remember for Me, I’ll Remember for You” offer much-needed variety, while its follow-up track, “Done (Let’s Get It),” meanders in a way that somehow manages to feel purposeful, the song radiating a kind of effortless cool that most of the album sadly lacks. Unfortunately, those moments are too rare, and With a Hammer ultimately can’t overcome its severe lack of energy or aesthetic focus.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.