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Music

Nilüfer Yanya Is More Assured Than Ever on 'Miss Universe'

Photo: Molly Daniels / ATO Records

Big without the "bang", Miss Universe poignantly showcases the young talent Nilüfer Yanya coming into her own on her own terms.

Miss Universe
Nilüfer Yanya

ATO

22 March 2019

"There's no one else's career that I see and think, 'Oh, I want to be like that,'" Nilüfer Yanya told Pitchfork back in 2017. Her album title, Miss Universe, suggests this mentality never changed. If anything, Yanya has matured more into herself and genre. Lyrically as much as thematically concerned with the cosmos, the album attracts the attention of angels and bends time against black holes. Here, Yanya is more resilient than the narrator of "The Florist" from two years ago and altogether more assured with her feelings. In her constructed reality, Yanya explores its possibilities ("In Your Head"), sets the boundaries ("Safety Net"), and tests its limits ("Tears").

Though it gives off tints of London Grammar, Sampha, and Cat Power, Yanya's voice resembles most the rounded, echoing timbre of Korean electronic artist CIFIKA. Like CIFIKA, Yanya conveys heaviness with her voice that imbues it with emotion and authority. It effortlessly shifts between Miss Universe's plethora of tracks, which touch upon lo-fi indie rock, R&B, and jazz without quite landing in any camp. On one track, she hops along to a sample of Kelis' "Millionaire", while in the very next she puts the "slow" in "slow burn" on the observationally devastating "Melt".

Indie producer extraordinaire John Congleton plays a large part in the record's sound; he produced parts of it and also served as Yanya's teacher at one point. Rather ironic to feature a professor on her album considering Yanya was rejected twice from different music programs, but Miss Universe revolves around these juxtapositions between Yanya's reality and ones imposed upon her. Sometimes this induces fear, at others it induces a sense of pride. In "Monsters Under the Bed", it's a bit of both. "I'm someone else (not myself) / But the feeling's good," she confides, at ease in a position others advise against.

Interludes spread throughout the album describe different levels of a self-improvement course, which promises results with some intense potential side effects. The introduction "Wway Health™" promises to "care for you so you don't have to" at the cost of paranoia and a search for validation in others. Much of Miss Universe involves Yanya grappling with the conventions of the world she finds herself in, which does manifest itself in bouts of anxiousness. Following the introduction, the garage rocking "In Your Head" rallies itself from "bottom rock", disoriented but determined to improve its lot. By "Angels", things already look up a bit, though cosmic forces threaten to rip it away at a moment's notice.

By chasing and achieving desired qualities such as romance or fame, Yanya finds they hold a fascination and power over her. Older cut "The Florist" dealt with her qualms about how all things must come to an end. Miss Universe takes it up a notch by asking "where do the good things go?" How does one ever enjoy "Paradise" when they know it will, like all things, inevitably conclude? That aforementioned Kelis sample says it all – good fortune comes with unforeseen consequences.

In Yanya's case, the solution involves centering oneself even at a cost. True self-care comes not from the lessons of others but from what you're capable of teaching yourself. Before the finale of "Heavy Weight Champion of the Year", an interlude mechanically recites "please give up or try again". Yanya's music career, which she struggled to make a reality, mirrors this way of thinking. Instead of locking itself into prescribed notions of success, emotions, or companionship, Miss Universe establishes truths and solutions of its own, on its own. Like Yanya's career, it exists and succeeds through sheer force of will.

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