Yaeji With a Hammer XL Recordings
Kathy Yaeji Lee once described her music as a “family business”. After seizing attention with crowd-convulsing sounds and cool nonchalance, it was her warm-hearted sense of community that lingered. Mixtape What We Drew was capacious house music made for the pandemic’s existential, nightclub-bereft dancers, bolstered by close global collaborators like Victoria Sin, YonYon and Nappy Nina.
Lee’s debut album, With a Hammer, tightens up her diaristic style, turning inward in order to undergo an emotional evolution. Still, Lee remains ever-connected to her village: “Hand me over what’s been distressing you/ I’ll smash it for you,” she whispers on the jazz-inflected 1 Thing to Smash with Hyperdub affiliate Loraine James. Here, she fully explores her own rage, self-doubts, and frustrations with societal and self repression.
This all plays out against a backdrop of shapeshifting soundscapes. Familiar, introspective house glides into more nostalgic sounds including mercurial trip-hop percussion and hints of 90s pop and electronica. Feverexpertly layers palpitating drums and lucid bass; Happyfroths up bubbly beats and honeyed harmonies with the help of Baltimore artist Nourished by Time; and For Granted is an angular, cathartic track that peaks in hard trance.
As in previous releases, Lee moves fluidly through Korean and English to draw out more potent lyricism on intergenerational trauma, the perceptions constraining Korean women and the universal theme of loneliness. On Passed Me By, she sings in Korean: “Do you remember your childhood/ What thoughts you’ve carried?” and then in English: “Do you know that that person is still/ Inside of you waiting for you to notice?”.
“I feel suffocated” is the haunting coda of the hypnotic, undulating Ready or Not. In spite of the heightened emotions, Yaeji wields her hammer with the power of love, specifically directed towards herself. She puts it best on Done (Let’s Get It), the woozy standout that makes clear her intention for this long-awaited debut: “Isn’t it a form of love to be/ Asking yourself how you want to be.”