21-year-old Indonesian pop and R&B artist NIKI has garnered quite a bit of attention after signing to the wildly popular 88Rising label, which intends to provide a platform for Asian artists in North America. After contributing to most of the highlights on the label’s uneven collaborative effort, Head in The Clouds II, last year, my excitement for her debut album had been growing. MOONCHILD is a concept album of sorts, as NIKI uses her first full-length project to cast herself as nocturnal character who gains strength from the moon. She uses this lens to tell a cohesive story over three segments, each representing a different phase of the moon, about the personal growth, discrimination, and of course, romantic entanglements she experienced while moving to the USA as an 18-year-old seeking stardom. Most of NIKI’s strengths as a songwriter come from the power of her highly emotional lyrics delivered in a fragile and understated vocal tone, and that certainly shows up more here. However, NIKI’s ambitious flair for the theatrical might have been reaching a little too high at times. Featuring some overly bombastic arrangements and sections of lyrics that are too on-the-nose to be effective, half this project sounds like it would honestly function better as one of those Broadway musicals that are entirely sung through. Instead of representing a well-structured and memorable song, the music simply provides a vessel for the storytelling. Still, NIKI’s unique vision and artistry, especially for such a young artist, results in quite a bit to love here.
It’s clear that MOONCHILD needs a complete visual aid of some sort to reach its full potential, and this is most exemplified by its intro, “Wide Open (Foreword),” essentially a disjointed and disorienting overture as evil forces creep in to set up and explain the rules of the world in which the album is set. Warning our titular naïve and optimistic moonchild to be wary of those seeking to harm her at all times, an unknown narrator lists the world’s dangers as she runs through a couple jazzy vocal runs and sudden powerful vocal harmonies intended to wake the listener up before some dramatic violins swell up like the score of a Christopher Nolan movie. As a song, it never really comes together at all, running through way too many different ideas as once, but as the opening to some kind of visual album, I’m sure it would be a highly engaging way to draw people in. The track “Switchblade” is where we first get to hear NIKI’s sharp pop songwriting instincts. Backed up by some massive drum hits and some Lorde-esque staccato backing vocals, NIKI’s character ventures into a new and unfamiliar world with an unshakeable confidence and excitement for what is to come. The track has an undeniable driving energy to it, NIKI’s breathless vocals selling the story as she suddenly breaks into a flurry of speedy syllables in the song’s second verse.
As the album’s first section continues on, we get the best example of how quickly this album can fluctuate from overly theatrical to absolutely incredible in the track “Nightcrawlers.” The first two thirds of the song see NIKI singing a chorus melody that’s so sweet and joyful it becomes highly obnoxious, mixed in with some eerie and foreboding lyrics. Backed up by a trap beat and some other old-school production embellishments, the half-rapped verses in this early section sound like they came directly off of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener album – she even throws in a couple ‘yuh’s. It all feels like NIKI is trying too hard to make some kind of off-putting “It’s A Small World” experience that never really lands – that is, until the final section makes all of NIKI’s goals to completely terrify the listener a reality. Pitching down her vocals and singing the chorus again with some distorted harmonies, a more aggressive trap beat drops that never fails to chill me to the bone as NIKI begins to deliver a menacing rap verse. It’s one of the only moments on the album that functions both as a powerful beat in the story and an exhilarating musical experience that’s hard to forget. This track transitions into “Selene,” which closes the section out and is easily the best song here. Produced by Pomo, who has given some great funk instrumentals to the likes of Anderson .Paak and Mac Miller, NIKI’s slinky vocals fit right in with the sensual and jazzy vibe as the moon goddess takes over her body and makes her do scandalous things. With some incredible harmonies and some mythological lyrical references, NIKI’s yearning vocals glide over some sharp guitar licks and a blaring horn section. It’s impossible not to move to, and it’s genuinely one of the greatest songs of the year.
The album’s second section opens with “Tide,” which is the track here that feels the least like a song and more like a sonic collage. With some classic horror-movie noises complete with eerie screeching violins and rumbling bass hits, NIKI does everything she can to throw the listener off guard as the destructive forces once again creep in to steal everything away from the protagonist. The track suddenly shifts to a soft piano section before concluding with a minimalistic and blown-out rap verse backed up by incredibly loud grinding industrial noises that don’t succeed at much but making me want to take my headphones off. For how menacing NIKI sounded rapping earlier in the album, this feels like it should be a climactic moment where she brings it back, but she sounds almost unsure of herself – later, I would learn that she used her first, exploratory take because she was too shy to rap in front of people at the studio. It definitely shows – and for committing so hard to such a wild concept, her lack of confidence is truly strange to me. What’s interesting is that another track in the section, “Lose,” is also NIKI’s first take as she wanted to capture her emotional vocal imperfections while singing the album’s cornerstone dramatic piano ballad. Contrary to “Tide,” the track comes off absolutely beautiful as NIKI lays her soul on the line describing a tough heartbreak. In between these is “Pandemonium,” one of the more understated tracks here where NIKI’s sweet and pure vocals and infectious melodies shine through, reaching down into her lower range for a dark and memorable chorus as the character starts to see a little cynicism creep in.
The album’s final section of three tracks is its weakest, beginning with the track “Plot Twist” which feels like it doesn’t fit the eerie vibes of the rest of the album at all as NIKI taps into some of her cheeriest pop songwriting yet that ultimately feels like it could have been written by anyone else due to throwing in just about every pop cliché in the book into it. “If There’s Nothing Left…” is another highly disorienting track seemingly geared only towards advancing the story featuring highly random orchestral swells, a misplaced trap beat that lines up with none of the other musical elements of the song and a truly baffling switch in tempo mid-verse that completely ruins the flow. The track “Drive On” closes the album out with a strong message of hope and the need to learn from your life’s hardships and press on that I certainly appreciate, but the song itself is another rather generic pop track aiming for a universally recognized uplifting and inspirational sound – due to the powerful lyricism, it definitely lands better than a track like “Plot Twist,” though.
MOONCHILD is nothing if not ambitious, and if NIKI continues to throw these kinds of ideas at the wall as she grows and discovers her sound, there’s the kind of potential here that could result in a future classic. For now, she’s still figuring things out, and the moments of greatness she does land on are an exciting glimpse into what’s to come.
Favourite Tracks: Selene, Switchblade, Lose, Pandemonium
Least Favourite Track: If There’s Nothing Left…