Written by Jack Andrew Cribb
It’s been a difficult time for the Los Angeles-born producer TOKiMONSTA (real name Jennifer Lee). In 2015 she was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, a condition in which certain arteries in the brain are constricted. In 2016, Lee underwent surgery to treat this condition, and in the months that followed, Lee lost her ability to speak and to hear music. This would be a traumatic experience for anyone, but for a music producer known for her eclectic and psychedelic hip-hop infused beats, it must have been harrowing.
“The whole month of February , I tried to acclimate myself to my life again.” wrote Lee. “The most difficult thing was trying to work on music. I opened Ableton and I couldn’t understand what I was doing, even though at that point my speech was at 90 percent. I tried to make music and it was just garbage. The part of my brain that knew how to put sounds together was broken. I didn’t understand why it didn’t make sense anymore. ”
You’d probably expect Lee’s newest album, Lune Rouge, to be an attempt to provide narrative to these trying experiences, but it isn’t that. At least, not explicitly. On first listening it seems more like an album that says “I’m still here. It’s still me.” It has the frenetic glitch-hop compositions of Lee’s older work, which underlines the overall sweet and smooth pop sound the album has. The eleven-track project features artists such as Isaiah Rashad, MDNR, Selah Sue, Joey Purp, and SAINTS. As it doesn’t stray too far from earlier TOKiMONSTA releases and has a unified cheerful sound, I’d argue it’s the most comforting thing Lee could have released.
The project opens with Lune and Rouge, with the former building up a minimalist orchestral intro, which develops with limited percussion from a hang drum, creating quite an introspective atmosphere. This then morphs into the second track through a post-rock guitar line that hovers over more familiar hip-hop beat territory.
The following songs such as Thief and I Wish I Could differ in their sound. The former, a soft EDM tune with vocals from SAINTS, and the latter, a punchier track featuring the falsetto vocals of Selah Sue who proclaims “I wish I could be better” throughout the chorus, seem to be somewhat at odds with the introductory tracks. “In a generation where everyone is very playlist-focused, I would say that this album is a playlist of songs for one person,” Lee said. “It represents who I am right now as an artist, how I’ve progressed over the many years that have passed since the last one … I just set the intentions to make the kind of music that makes me happy.” We all create playlists of our favourite songs to produce different sensations within us and to deal with different moods, and as I said before about this being a comforting release, this seems to be Lee’s attempt at just that.
While Lune Rouge seems to base itself in more streamlined pop productions, we are still granted the more experimental sounds that have garnered Lee attention in the past. These tracks are usually the ones where she has worked alone; the oriental-sounding breakbeat and onomatopoeic Bibimbap, and the driving, futuristic lo-fi trip-hop of Rose’s Thorn.
NO WAY, which draws on the lyrical abilities of Isaiah Rashad, Joey Purp, and the caramel vocals of Ambré, is a generally relaxed piece of classic hip-hop, which again seems at odds with the tracks it sits next to in the chronology of the album. The eighth track, Don’t Call Me is a real head-bopper, with this crystal clear production quality that envelops a hypnotising chorus melody, allowing contributing vocalist Yuna to shine with her emotional R & B stylings.
“This album isn’t going to be made to satisfy the needs of an industry or the needs of a trend.” stated Lee. “”I’m just going to make songs that make me happy, and I really hope they make other people happy, too.” That’s not to say that this is a happy album, but the whole process of creating it was very cathartic for me. It’s my most personal piece of work. Because I’m making beats, it might not be as obvious, but each of these beats—all these songs I put together—tell a story.”
While Lune Rouge does not truly go into the specifics of Lee’s experience, it does contain this overall sense of melancholy that adds a richness of texture to the eleven tracks, as if there is something deeply poignant and significant just below the surface. We can hear it in the misfired beats in Lee’s work, the areas of little sound between drum kicks and synth samples. Lune Rouge isn’t a genre-defining or defying album, but it is a happy album, an artwork that stands as some of Lee’s best work, despite losing the ability to make music altogether just a few months before this album began to take shape, and that’s a pretty wonderful thing to be allowed to hear.
p.s. final track Estrange is beautiful.