NIKI – ‘Nicole’ review: 88rising star revisits her teen years in Jakarta with folk-pop confessionals

In her second LP, Nicole Zefanya updates old songs and sometimes schmaltzy tales using her keen eye for lyrical detail

NIKI has never cared much for sticking to one musical style. “Genre completely just defeats the purpose of calling yourself an artist,” she told us in 2020, the year she released ‘Moonchild’, her debut LP and NME’s top album made by an Asian artist that year. Indeed: she’s gone from silky ’90s R&B in her 2018 debut EP ‘Zephyr’, to intricately polished pop in ‘Moonchild’. Last year, she even cracked TikTok with the peppy and soulful Marvel soundtrack tune ‘Every Summertime’.

The Indonesian singer-songwriter has come a long way from the guitar-wielding teen who opened for Taylor Swift’s Red Tour in Jakarta and would later relocate to Los Angeles and sign to Sean Miyashiro’s label 88rising. On her second full-length album, titled for her full first name, NIKI revisits her early journey as a musician – even the ‘nzee24’ YouTube channel that she deleted at the start of her career.

On ‘Nicole’, Zefanya reconnects with her folk-pop roots, ditching the string of co-writers and savvy pop sheen of ‘Moonchild’. She instead reproduces songs written in her teens, embracing both raw confessionals and unapologetic schmaltz.

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There are several gems in the 12-track record, but there are also lyrical moments that walk the fine line between playfully nostalgic and plain cringey. Take for instance: “High school in Jakarta / Sorta modern Sparta / Had no chance against the teenage suburban armadas,” the infinitely hummable hook of ‘High School In Jakarta’ that’s thoroughly milked for repetition. What’s interesting about it, though, is you can’t quite decide whether to feel annoyed or just sing along the fifth time it crops up in the 3-minute track.

But NIKI’s flippant verses save the song from being overly cloying: “Now there’s drama / Found a club for that where I met ya / Had a heart attack / Yada, yada” she sings. She brings light humour and vivid detail to what could easily be a tired tale of boy troubles: “Bleached half my hair when I saw Zoe on your Vespa… No chance against the Marxist girl with marijuana…Glad she gave it to you real hard, but I loved you harder”.

In true NIKI fashion, the 23-year-old collapses a range of musical styles into the folk-pop tinged album. She flits from a dancey shuffle that recalls Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ (‘Keeping Tabs’) to weepy, Phoebe Bridgers-esque epiphanies (‘Anaheim’, ‘Backburner’, ‘Milk Teeth’) to Yo La Tengo’s sweetly melodic pop stylings (‘The Apartment We Won’t Share’).

She name-checks The Goo Goo Dolls and Snow Patrol while singing largely about what-could’ve-beens, imagined alternate lives and great loves lost. But it’s the insightful candour in NIKI’s songwriting that stands out: “Maybe I blame my mother bleeding into my stride / Maybe it was my father and his wandering eye,” she sings in ‘Backburner’ while mulling a relationship that never seems to stick.

The tender album closer ‘Take A Chance With Me’ begins with a jangly guitar that quiets down whenever NIKI asks, “Why can’t we for once / say what we want, say what we feel? …disregard the world and run to what you know is real / Take a chance on me.” Her delivery of the line grows in urgency with every repetition.

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Though meant to confront a fickle partner who hesitates to act on love, the lyrics could just as well apply to NIKI’s relationship with music and the career choices she’s made so far. “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take,” she sings. In recording and releasing ‘Nicole’ at least, taking what looks like a step back to move forward has paid off.

Details

NIKI - Nicole
  • Release date: August 12
  • Label: 88rising
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