It’s hard not to speak about Nilufer Yanya in anything but superlatives.
We’ve been fans of the London hailing singer for a long time, dating back to when we saw her set at Electric Picnic last year and before that Niall featured her as his artist of the week for the Irish Times.
Her debut album Miss Universe dropped last Friday and in a few words, it’s easily one of the most interesting offerings we’ve heard in 2019 thus far. The record is a total cross-pollination of genres, from the Neo-soul infused melodies that prevail on songs like ‘Paradise’ to the pop soundscapes of ‘Safety Net’ but there’s more to the record than Yanya’s ability to shift between styles.
Miss Universe sees the singer flit habitually from composure to complete emotional turbulence; the verses of album opener ‘All In Your Head’ (not including skit WWAY Health) are collected and assured, while the chorus houses a total expel of energy that presents the singer at her fullest, mirrored sonically in the grungey guitar tones and thrashing drums.
There’s sure gospel influences in ‘Baby Blu’ in the rich chords and layered backing vocals that are complimented by building, anticipation inducing percussion lines. It’s a song that never reaches it’s full climax but that was never its intention, the joy is in the build (dare I say journey?) and its alluring slow burn that places lyrics and melody at the forefront, “but you claim not to claim, to say and to say, but nothing wears you off, just too sad, it’s too sad”.
This contrasts completely with songs like ‘Heavy Weight Champion Of The Year’ that we first heard in 2018; it’s a beautiful track that revels in its minimalism and sees Yanya question just how much she is prepared to share with the world, “I’m tired, from all these dreams, lack of sleep… so you’re a liar, a liar, girl”.
The over-arching theme of anxiety might not be apparent on first listen if you get lost in the dense instrumentation, but it seeps into most songs. The theme prevails from the very beginning with the opening skit ‘WWAY HEALTH’, an acronym for We Worry About Your Health (a fabricated mental health institution) to the haunting ‘Monsters Under The Bed’ towards the album’s end. The song was written when she was one 15 and it deals with anxiety and the stresses that accompany modern day life, “they all say I’m not okay, such a shame, never felt so good… but the feeling’s good”.
The same can be said for ‘The Unordained’, a stripped back ballad that’s sparse enough to allow Yanya’s self-awareness to be the salient feature, “sooner or later, they’re going to abase her…”. Most of the songs towards the album’s latter end possess a spaciousness and certain self-awareness that harp back to earlier material such as the gorgeous ‘Small Crimes’ from 2016.
If there’s any negatives, they lie in the skits such as ‘Give Up Warning’ and ‘Warning’ that detract from the album’s flow a little but provide a textural change if nothing else. They feel like an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise well-rounded and considered debut album.
Miss Universe reaches its end as a deftly authentic and original debut, and asserts itself an early contender for an album of the year in doing so.