On Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks west of the Capitol building, the Newseum hosts a permanent exhibit of five hundred years of front pages, from a 1603 broadsheet commemorating the coronation of James I to the present day’s headlines. Some weeks ago after the election of Donald Trump, a devastated friend and I made our way through that cavernous, low-lit corridor, our fingers tracing centuries of calamity pressed into newsprint and shielded behind glass. At the end of our walk, after all that disease and death and disaster, I felt a burden lift. There was something perversely soothing in this irrefutable reminder that the road behind us had been no less difficult than the road ahead of us would surely be.
The rising Chicago pop artist KAINA writes with this notion in mind, placing her day-to-day struggles in a long tradition of lamentation, bigger than today and bigger, even, than Trump. Her striking lyrics take aim at present-day bigots who clamor for closed borders—“Look how these brown hands cook all your meals/But mama says you want us all to disappear”—but she’s more concerned with the persistence of this foundational hatred, and with the people she loves, who have thrived “through so many moons” and continue to thrive in spite of racist brutality.
The album’s title—along with the sugary expanse of cotton-candy clouds on its cover—makes for a clever bit of misdirection. KAINA spends the better part of “Next to the Sun” interrogating hollow maxims of self-care and searching, instead, for the roots of her community’s resilience. Often, this means flipping an oft-used lyrical symbol into something surprising, even shocking. The sun of the title track is a stand-in for a self-destructive impulse, and KAINA casts herself as Icarus: “Wanna feel it all/The burn and the lesson, the fall.” When she sings the word “bed,” on “Ghost” and “Could Be A Curse,” she calls to mind Tracey Emin’s depressive episodes and disheveled sheets, the furthest thing from standard pop eroticism.
“What’s a Girl” is an even more impressive feat, with KAINA flipping empty, you-go-girl affirmation into a scathing indictment of the impossible expectations to which women of color are held. “What is a girl without ambition? …What is a soul without the fight?” she sings, even after wearily lamenting that “the fight… never stops.” When the personal is political, it is all too easy for one’s very being to become a battleground. KAINA insists that her strength shouldn’t be measured by her capacity to suffer without flinching, but in her ability to heal, assisted by the people she loves.
It is KAINA’s new understanding of the deep reserves of love within her and in the people around her that closes the record, on the joyous, gorgeous “Green.” Here, she understands love as something irreducible, irrefutable: “Sky could be blue as can be/Grass could be green, green, too/And my love the same, same as them/They’re facts, it’s true.” After an album’s worth of ruminating on isolation, fatigue, and disconnection, “Green” arrives as a hard-won and genuine celebration. KAINA is helped to this realization by a couple of supportive guests: an adorable young relative, on “Joei’s Secret,” who urges her to ignore fuckboys and focus instead on “drawing, or education,” and close collaborator Sen Morimoto, who reaches through the fog on “Could Be A Curse” and comforts her: “You are not the sum of your fears… Just try to sleep.”
This lyrical journey finds a sophisticated mirror in the music. On opening track “House,” the arrangement isn’t so much deconstructed as destroyed; strings and synths ring out in soft, distorted loops, a scrap of a horn riff shatters before it’s even begun, and KAINA’s voice reaches unsteadily through the wreckage. Over the course of the album, sounds slowly cohere until “Green” arrives, an intricate, indomitable piece of Latin jazz. The early songs are no less beautiful for their brokenness, but KAINA’s mission is to reach for more sound, more color, more people to hold in one’s heart. “You like to keep this place empty,” she sings, on “House,” against a spare soundscape. “There’s room for plenty.”
Buy: Rough Trade
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