Review Summary: Oh, Jenny...
Jennifer Lee probably is sick of the comments on her moniker, TOKiMONSTA, and how it relates to her as a person by now. It’s her fault though. Clearly, describing herself as a ‘rabbit monster’ was going to get some comments, especially when she dabbles in such a particular brand of chilled-out hip-hop. Lee often crafts powerful and meaty beats, which is almost surprising given her unassuming size and personality, making her quite the monster with her MacBook. Yet, at other times, she’ll go into her more chilled out style and come out with soundscapes ambitious in scope but small and personal in delivery. This is perhaps her largest issue however; sometimes that scope and enthusiasm doesn’t quite measure up in the end. Her 2010 debut album, Midnight Menu
, measured its ideas and execution in equal measure, but her long player follow up, Half Shadows
, seems to have more heart than it does substance. Ideally, she could have gone in a quite a few directions with her follow-up: she could have taken some queues from her contemporaries, such as a Will Wiesenfeld approach, taking her brightness down an introspectively dark rabbit hole; or perhaps a more Steve Ellison approach, taking a signature sound and refining it and expanding it in new but focused directions. And she does a little bit of both, expanding her pallet and enlisting guests to do the talking for her, but too often the ideas on this album don’t feel distinct or defined enough to make it a fulfilling experience.
The album starts off with one foot on the gas and one foot on the pavement. Songs like ‘808’ and ‘The Force’ still have an edge to them, the latter of which through enlisting the increasingly irrelevant Kool Keith to spit a verse that slowly becomes enveloped by her beat. Is this style successful, though? That’s the debatable part. ‘808’ and its cousin ‘Focused Chaos’ both reminisce of her Cosmic Intoxication
days as well as show a stylistic progression new for Lee, but feel excessive in their production and sluggish despite their intended energy. They show potential but the album comes out worse for wear. Even more dishearteningly, only the first four tracks seem to go in this vein so this style gets no particular chance to redeem itself either.
The more airy second half fairs better for sure. ‘Clean Slate’ and ‘Foolish’ both enlist her oft collaborator Gavin Turek for reliably bright vocals, and Lee’s almost pseudo-disco production on ‘Foolish’ make it a toe-tapping highlight. The MDNR feature ‘Go With It’ as well works for vibrant, poppy production and vocals, but after this point the energy slows some for a dreamier closing act. Tracks such as ‘Soul to Seoul’ and ‘Waiting For the Break of Dawn’ reflect her older styles from Midnight Menu
and Creature Dreams
respectively and are almost disappointingly the best tracks on here. Her pallet, though expanded, still paints best in her older styles, and it shows through these two, the only particularly newness to them being her confidence in using her own voice as a sonic element. The final two features for the album, Andreya Triana’s ‘Green’ and Jesse Boykin III’s ‘Moon Rise’ bring solid contributions, the former through expectedly mellow and atmospherically chilled out vocals and production, and the latter through by far the most impassioned vocals on display, as well as a perfectly eventide atmosphere, bringing the album to a conclusion that's better than its opening, even though that isn't much of a compliment. The weakest aspect of this last stretch of songs is the tackiness of its subject matter and delivery. From 'Foolish' to 'Moon Rise', songs here sound rather ham-fisted, and in an uneven album like this, it's not so much unforgivable as it is inconvenient and limply detrimental.
So, where does that leave the album? Lee makes that a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, she shows artistic growth and it's not a misplaced expansion either. On the other hand, however, her strongest songs are stylistic throwbacks, and her weakest songs are forgettable expansions into new styles. Who's going to remember 'Sweet Williams' or 'Focused Chaos' when not listening to the album? At it's worst the songs are only forgettable or mediocre, and Miss TOKi still brings enough solid tracks individually to warrant further faith and investment from the listener. It just leaves you longing for something off of a different menu. Preferably one of the midnight persuasion.