Album Review: Yaeji – What We Drew

[XL; 2020]

Kathy Yaeji Lee quickly went from unknown DJ status to being a celebrated breakout artist three years ago thanks to her second EP for Godmode, and its throbbing club-friendly single “Raingurl”. Outside of the appropriately titled 2018 one-off single “One More” and a few remixes, she’s mostly kept quiet, having stepped back from an increasingly frantic pace she wasn’t comfortable with. Recently signed with respected indie label XL, she has finally returned with some new material of her own. Billed as a mixtape, What We Drew is the closest thing we have (for now, at least) to a proper debut, but it’s anything but disappointing. 

She could have easily filled the space with the same reliable balmy deep-house of her previous releases, but instead Yaeji treats the mixtape format more like a crate-digging session, experimenting with and expanding on her sound rather than limiting herself. It’s adventurous and unexpected in places, and there’s a palpable joy in hearing her sounding free and confident as ever. The music remains indebted to hip hop and house music, but she merges it with elements of experimental pop and DIY electronic music to create something distinctly her own.

“Free Interlude” rattles with some of the hardest trap beats she’s ever laid down. A comparatively darker song about jealousy, it also happens to be one of the goofiest songs on here, courtesy of guest rapper Sweet Pea laying down lines like “I like pink / I like purple / You’re a Shirple,” and everyone’s voices processed to almost hilarious effects that give the impression of playing an old warped cassette tape. “In The Mirror” spends two minutes creating a gloomy uneasy build before bottoming out with a burst of some particularly nasty breakbeats that threaten to unravel everything.

The tempos on What We Drew are dialed down compared to the previous two EPs. The songs are spacious and luxuriant and are layered with more intricate details, but the impact is no less immediate. “In Place” rumbles warmly with pools of deep bass, a fluttering hi-hat and Yaeji’s voice manipulated to sound alternately dreamy and possessed. The pulsating drum patterns on “The Thing” help turn Victoria Sin’s philosophical spoken-word piece into something weirdly hypnotic and danceable at the same time.

Having no specific theme in mind when she began writing, What We Drew has manifested as a work focused on friendship, family, gratitude, and support, which is reflected in the collaborative spirit of the project. Handling virtually all of the production herself, Yaeji turned to a handful of her friends to share vocal duties. Rather than leaving everything feeling – as is the case with most mixtapes with tons of features – What We Drew actually benefits from them, as her collaborators bring attention to her production rather than overwhelm it. 

What’s more is Yaeji’s songwriting has taken a more personal tone here, trading off subjects of champagne, cars, and clubs from her EPs for topics closer to her heart. “When I Grow Up” confronts the difficulties of adulthood, while “Waking Up Down” – a song about depression – is a literal checklist of her daily routine that she somehow makes feel like small victories being won. 

The one song that emphasizes the tape’s theme most though is “Money Can’t Buy”. “We’ll sit in a circle and look at each other / and reminisce how we got to meet each other / we’ll laugh with each other and show one another what it’s like to share love with each other,” she sings. It’s to her credit that she’s able to sing about something this pure and sincere and make it work. It’s ultimate proof that while her skills as a producer have obviously grown, so has her songwriting, which she is pushing into more intimate spaces without losing any of the playful catchiness that made it so fun to begin with.