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Featured Artist: Yaeji Takes “A Hammer” To Genres & Labels

New York by way of Seoul producer and singer Yaeji has become an integral part of modern electronic music, but with a sound that’s totally her own. Telling Fader, “in one place I [looked] different. I the other place, I [acted] and [sounded] different.” The wide range of influences she cites all stem back to a third-culture upbringing that cast her in between so many conflicting ideas. Let’s take a look at what Yaeji’s accomplished since kicking off her career in 2017.

Career Beginnings on Yaeji and EP2

The story begins with Yaeji’s first single, “New York 93,” a distant piece of… well, that’s the thing. Even in her earliest release, Yaeji’s music eluded clear categorization. “New York 93” is probably best described as ambient music, given the unorthodox instrumentation that makes up the song’s main melody. Her delivery on the song sets up a similarly distant atmosphere, but there are clearly pieces of all types of music: house, R&B, hip-hop, you name it.

With the release of her self-titled debut EP a couple of years later, we got a much wider base of material to begin to understand the producer’s M.O. A far more energetic exploration of those cross sections came on “Guap,” with its use of a traditional four-on-the-floor house beat and a borrowed vocal sample that Yaeji harmonizes with throughout the song. While it wasn’t truly a breakout, the EP absolutely turned heads, earning some heavyweight online coverage and the beginnings of a cult following.

Later in 2017, she’d unveil the sister project to her debut, the fittingly named EP2. The backgrounded vocal delivery that marked her first EP remained in place, but everything else indicated that the singer was stepping to into the spotlight. Take “Raingurl,” a grimy and addictive club anthem that became easily her biggest hit yet. On top of rumbling, enchanting synths, the singer’s lyrical charm turns up to 100. In the bridge, she delivers the couplet: “When the sweaty walls are bangin’ I don’t f*** with family planning,” and in the verse sections, she swaps between Korean and English, a balance that continues to crop up in her catalog from here.

The cover art for Yaeji’s first releases, Yaeji and EP2.

The Singer Experiments Wildly on Her First Full-Lengths

So, if you were trying to guess the trend Yaeji was on at this point, it seemed that she was filing down the rough edges, and her releases would only get more accessible. And that’s where you’d be wrong—though “Raingurl,” “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” and even the cover of Drake’s “Passionfruit” hinted towards more mainstream music, her debut mixtape, WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던, was anything but.

She instead turned towards more sporadic and harsh production, exploring hard-style territory, like on the drum and bass cut “NEVER SETTLING DOWN.” The album also featured a return to the hip hop influence of her early career, with features from rappers representing diverse origins—be it Oakland’s Nappy Nina, New York’s G.L.A.M. or Korean artists Sweet Pea. Though decidedly more eclectic and abrasive than what she made a name for herself with, WHAT WE DREW showed that trying to box Yaeji in was totally an uphill battle.

That brings us to With A Hammer, Yaeji’s debut full-length that landed in March of this year. The LP’s title is purposefully evocative, with the singer telling NME that she felt those emotions most during the pandemic. “There was weirdness and difficulty” in her upbringing, stemming from being othered as a second-generation Korean in a predominantly white area of Atlanta. Those core-level frustrations, coupled with the Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter demonstrations that marked 2020, resulted in a palpable rage that she sought to channel with her debut.

At Long Last, Yaeji’s Debut Album

Again, the singer says it best: “for an angry album, it turned out pretty chill.” Generational reflections are wrapped in bubblegum pop on “Done (Let’s Get It),” a nostalgic breakbeat at play as she raps in staccato fashion: “Isn’t it so weird how we learn to
pass down what we didn’t want to do? / Isn’t it our mission this life to break the cycles.” The infectious “For Granted,” the most popular off of With A Hammer, carries a similarly dissonant vibe; it’s hard not to bob your head, even as she wrestles with the success she’s found, and whether she’s even enjoying it in the first place.

If nothing else, With A Hammer is imminently enjoyable and infectious as you’re party to the singer grappling with some of life’s biggest questions. Put differently, if squaring away those contradictions didn’t provide enough reason to backtrack, the music certainly does—a theme that Yaeji has kept constant the whole way through. You can find all the music featured here on streaming platforms, and you can catch the latter half of the With A Hammer tour as well. She’s currently making her way through Europe, with dates currently scheduled in Berlin, London and Paris in the next few months.

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