TOKiMONSTA is back.
Maybe that doesn’t sound momentous to you; her album Fovere came out just a year and a half ago, and Young Art Sound, a compilation of artists on her label Young Art, showcased her and a number of her most talented colleagues earlier this year. In that time, though, Jennifer Lee, the name behind the beats, went through multiple brain surgeries to correct a potentially life-threatening condition, losing and regaining the abilities to understand and process language and music in the process.
That sets the scene for Lune Rouge, and while it makes for a poignant backstory, you don’t have to know all that to feel it. On her new album, Lee composes and produces electronic masterpieces tinged with melancholy, whether those are atmospheric instrumentals or songs with deeply catchy choruses. TOKiMONSTA has never put out a thoughtless album, and Lune Rouge stands as the culmination of all her experience — her fullest album to date.
In the past, Lee has collaborated with artists like Anderson Pack and Gavin Turek for some of her most soulful and accessible bops. Here, the guest list is as fresh and star-studded as ever, with MNDR, Yuna, Isaiah Rashad, and Selah Sue among the featured voices that populate the Lune Rouge sphere, lending grounded, familiar touches to a soundscape that verges on otherworldly.
It takes a specific type of voice to perfectly melt into a TOKiMONSTA creation, and each of the featured artists here is perfectly attuned to Lee’s cool, uncluttered style. “I Wish I Could” starts out deceptively sedate, giving Selah Sue room to rise from a murmur to a howl over the course of the song, one of Lee’s most emotionally high key pieces. “Don’t Call Me” stays quieter, putting a lovelorn Yuna in the middle of a sadly twinkling melody and slowly building beats that crash against her soft, scornful voice. Between the two is perhaps the album’s most effective earworm: “No Way”, a cold shoulder delivered by a thoughtfully disdainful Isaiah Rashad, with Joey Purp and Ambré adding warmer colors to the mix. It’s an arrogant hell of a breakup song, but the instrumentation is so clear and gorgeous that it’s hard to get mad.
When Lee flies solo, she puts a whole other side of her creative mind on display. As a composer, she has an incredibly delicate touch, a fine ear for detail that enhances the simplest work. Early on, this manifests itself in twin tracks “Lune” and “Rouge”, which build in sequence from a synthesized ensemble of soft, legato strings to sparse, barely echoing beats. When “Rouge” introduces handclaps, water sounds, and ethereal vocals, the layers work as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts, and the voices climactically affirm: “I see the lights / In your feeling.”
A couple of tracks later, we are well immersed in the depths of Lune Rouge, and the instrumental track “Bibimbap” introduces wobbling pizzicato and a vague sense of psychedelia that make it one of the most engaging and percussive tracks on the album. In contrast to that, the solo song “Rose’s Thorn” a little closer to the end is full of sweeping serenity: water sounds, spaced-out beats, and a handful of minor chords paint a picture of both longing and tranquility, a heart-rending combination with no real name. Vast, it evokes oceans, plateaus, sunsets — endless, awe-inspiring, and a little desolate.
Downtempo “Estrange” ends the album with heavy bass and soothing vocals by IO Echo, who bids farewell over hopeful notes. It holds solidly to the balance Lee has been aiming to strike the entire time, between pain and peace, reality and dreams. Lune Rouge is an ambitious assembly of every disparate tool in the TOKiMONSTA repertoire, and it’s a resounding success.