Review: NIKI looks back to move forward on ‘Nicole’

Photo courtesy NIKI

By Jacob Pellegrino 08/23/22 21:58

Rating: ★★★★

Best Track: “Backburner”

On “Nicole,” NIKI looks to her roots to move forward, collaborating with her younger self to create work that bridges the gap between two different eras in her life and career. The entertainer, born Nicole Zefanya, caused a stir when she won a nationwide competition to open Taylor Swift’s Red Tour in Jakarta. At the time, she maintained a YouTube channel, “nzee24”, on which she posted original songs and covers, mostly with a stripped-down sound, based on guitar and vocals.

However, in an effort to create a new identity for herself, Zefanya began performing under the name NIKI and removed all of her “nzee24” era videos from YouTube. She shifted her sound from the singer-songwriter genre to a more grounded R&B aesthetic, ultimately crafting an unclassifiable debut album that delved into a darker musical palette.

“Nicole” is a return to Zefanya’s roots, consisting of reinvented and re-recorded versions of songs Zefanya wrote before taking on her new moniker. In her album announcement on Instagram, she told fans that “the The first half of the album will contain both new and archived songs that no one has ever heard before, and the second half will feature my personal favorite originals that lived on nzee24. Over the years, NIKI has held on to her past work, waiting for the right time to return to these songs. Inspired by Taylor Swift’s own re-recorded albums and a personal desire to revisit that era, Zefanya knew it was the right time to return to the lyrics she wrote so many years ago.

Lead single “Before” tells the story of a short-lived, long-distance relationship Zefanya had in college. The song, which is also the beginning of the album, curiously speaks of an end. Even in the first verse, Zefanya mentions her boyfriend at the time “talking[ing] on [his] a cool new friend / that i’ve never met, that you went out with as soon as i left. This sense of dissolution and hurt is contrasted by Zefanya’s fluid pop vocal delivery. The song sounds rather fun and energetic before listening to the lyrics. The most poignant moment comes when Zefanya laments, “It’s so cruel that things aren’t nearly the same anymore” as the relationship dissolves.

“Oceans & Engines” tackles similar themes of loss and distance, written in “2016 when [Zefanya] was 17 years old and lived the heartbreaking heartbreak of a first love that was going away for good. Unlike “Before”, “Oceans & Engines” is an affectionate farewell to its former flame. The lyrics strongly reflect Zefanya’s age at the time, with a charming naivety that shines through. Her teenage grief is clear in her pained voice as she declares that she is “letting go”.

A highlight of the album is “Backburner”, a track about being pushed aside by someone you love. The song quickly establishes an on-and-off relationship where Zefanya is only contacted when her partner wants something. The introductory line “I can’t lie, it feels good for you to call” followed by a mention of how they should be dead to Zefanya in the chorus shows a reluctance to shift from a magnetic personality that feels good to interact with but ultimately doesn’t care about her. The chorus also features Zefanya wondering if she’s better off than accepting this unhealthy relationship — something she doesn’t know if she can do. As expected, the partner fades again in “a week or so”, leaving Zefanya on the “back burner”. The track is gripping, as NIKI clearly wants to move on and not accept the behavior, but continues to be content with being at the back of her mind – something a lot of people can relate to.

“The Apartment We Won’t Share” is one of the most folk-influenced pop songs on the album. Another breakup song, the track deals with the assumptions people make during their relationships and how they break down when the relationship ends. This can be roughly summed up in the line “The story we won’t tell is my greatest fantasy”, which means that the end of the relationship was not just the end of what Zefanya and her partner shared, but the death of the dreams she had for their future. In the second verse, she considers the relationship with two years of gained perspective, seeing how each of them has changed and diverged from where Zefanya thought they would be.

On “Nicole”, NIKI creates beautiful, well-produced pop songs that use her personal experiences to relate to universal emotions and situations. While largely about relationships, “Nicole” is also a tribute to Nicole Zefanya’s passion for music and songwriting before signing with 88rising.

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