The thing about change is that we often think about it in linear, inevitable terms: we’re born, we live, we die. But in the space between beginnings and endings lies a labyrinth of stories: one that NIKI explores and defines on her own terms in her debut full-length record, ‘Moonchild’.
“In the beginning I was so obsessed with being this ‘R&B princess,’” the 21-year-old Indonesian singer-songwriter told NME of her early motivations. “I worried that if people heard anything else, they’d be like, what?” And although ‘Moonchild’ has its moments of undulating contemporary R&B, it also navigates crisp, genre-spanning soundscapes – pop, country, funk, and rap – and chips away at perceived limitations on not just NIKI’s potential as an artist, but her identity as well. It’s the underlying theme that anchors NIKI’s pilgrimage to self-discovery: that the sense of self is defined by change.
On her debut record – it’s also a concept album – NIKI weaves a fantastical narrative: over the three ‘phases’ of the LP, a tripartite structure that references the lunar cycles, her Moonchild persona goes on a journey of metamorphosis. And that transformation has plenty to do with the real-life NIKI as she grapples with her identity and her place in the world as a female Asian artist on one of the most hyped labels today.
She unspools the experience in her brooding opening salvo, ‘Wide Open’, a ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ moment that’s not just an attitude she has to adopt but in many ways, a duty she needs to fulfil to herself.
This energy carries through on ‘Switchblade’, a sweeping anthem that celebrates new beginnings, as NIKI takes in the abundance of the world and what it offers (“And I’m feeling brave / The winds of change have nothing on this switchblade faith / I’ll take it to my grave”). It’s also there on the affable pop cut ‘Nightcrawlers’, on which she insists on relishing the moment even with the lurking promise of failure or pain.
But she doesn’t get too caught up in it. There’s an inherent self-awareness throughout ‘Moonchild’ that nothing is freely afforded to her: she’ll earn what she’ll have. “This is the coveted land for both heroes and fools,” she sings, as she recognises the risks and rewards of being a young artist in America. And with all these compounded, she wonders: is she entitled to making mistakes, too? Is she allowed to?
Often, people ascribe idealism to youth, a stereotype that NIKI challenges on this album: with the world in its present state, being alive is almost a miracle. On ‘Tide’, which harkens back to ‘Fighter’-era Christina Aguilera, NIKI juxtaposes the threat of malevolence – keeping your guard up at all times – with vulnerability, as manifested in the lovely outro (“While you try to win everyone else / You’re doing it losing, you’re losing yourself / Don’t get distracted, don’t get compelled / Don’t let ’em capsize your health”).
This is the beauty of NIKI’s artistry shining in gloom – in the space between beginning and end – as she struggles to keep faith amid disillusionment. In ‘Pandemonium’, with her voice lilting and weary as she’s stricken with grief and confronted with mistaken beliefs, she shows grace.
NIKI closes the final phase of ‘Moonchild’ with three lofty ballads and pop tunes that revolve around, as simplistic it may sound, self-love. She picks herself up in ‘Lose’ and reassures in ‘Plot Twist’ (“Nothing stays the same… and we’re still just stories above the concrete”). She’s careful not to understate the power of loving yourself, acknowledging how her own self-affirmation goes beyond herself to her listeners, especially young women and girls, who stand in front of a mirror that men built and try to recognise their own image.
- Release date: September 10
- Record label: 88rising