If the mission of pop music is to appeal to the broadest possible audience, then Yuna may be among the most ambitious stars shining in today’s soundscape. Born and based in Malaysia, a country remarkable for its linguistic, religious, and general cultural diversity, Yuna brings her perspectives on life, love, and womanhood to the global stage time and time again with sincerity and soul. On new album Rouge, she gets particularly personal on topics like public and private identities and relationships with finely-crafted dance jams and slow ballads alike. Adding to her image as an internationally-minded artist are a wide range of featured guest stars originally from very different markets – Jay Park, Little Simz, Tyler, the Creator – all joining Yuna on the way to her grand finale, where she sings solo on a track completely in Malay.
Rouge is, in some ways, a redefinition of what it means to be a worldwide star. The same factors that make it unique, also make it the epitome of successful pop music; it’s easy to listen to and deliberately engaging of audiences everywhere. Yuna’s repertoire is an exceptional one, and Rouge is a particularly powerful addition to it.
Sleek production lets Yuna’s voice come through with exquisite clarity, often layered across multiple octaves. This instrument and the passion with which she wields it make for lush pop music with sensual R&B overtones. Winding strings and faux-vinyl crackling introduce opening track “Castaway” and move forward on the momentum of funk beats. Yuna’s breathy verses lead into a mellow rap break from Tyler, the Creator, keeping the track slow and steady. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Yuna keep it mid-tempo or even slow it to a ballad; she has the kind of voice that doesn’t need speed to sound interesting.
“(Not) The Love of My Life”, for its predictable lyrics – “Our love is breaking / My heart is racing / You’re not the love of my life” – has gorgeous color to its melody, in no small part due to Yuna’s dulcet scorn. Truth rings even stronger in “Teenage Heartbreak”, an ethereal track featuring the stinging guitar work of Japanese artist MIYAVI. Belying its carefree tune is a sense of masochism only too familiar to any survivor of the title malady (“If someone were to warn me that this was going to happen / That you would walk into my life and ruin it / I would still let you”). Wistful “Amy” enlists emotive vocal harmonies and jazz notes from Masego and tells the sweet story of a girl eager to grow up and leave home from the point of view of a starry-eyed admirer (“You just wanna be a woman / I just wanna be like you”).
In between these more languid tracks are hard-hitting bops that tend to be fueled by a march toward empowerment. “Blank Marquee” may feature G-Eazy spitting rhymes, but it’s the barely perceptible growl to Yuna’s refrain of “Who are you without me / Just a blank marquee” that sells this as a song to belt out even as the singer keeps things subtle. Youth-oriented feminist anthem “Pink Youth” is a nu-disco banger with an added punch from fast-paced British rapper Little Simz. It’s an obvious highlight, and one that shows Yuna stepping out of the soft shadows to push forward as part of a musical movement that calls out the danger inherent in existing as female in society (“They don’t know what it means to be a girl / What it means to be on enemy shores”) while celebrating that same state of being (“Like diamonds shining in the sky / Girls like you and I”).
Also timely is “Likes”, in which Yuna confronts her critics. In particular, she focuses on those who question her identity as a Muslim woman on the stage, from a number of vantage points. She juxtaposes the xenophobic (“I heard she doesn’t drink / Who does she think she is? / What is that on her head? / It does not make sense to me”) alongside the fundamentalist (“Oh, she Muslim, why / She’s singing on stage / She’s showing her neck in public / I don’t like it / It does not make sense to me”) to show how similar they end up being in practice even when their viewpoints are diametrically opposite. Rapper KYLE, with a high-energy delivery that tries to channel “Left Eye” Lopes, adds to this general stance against audiences of bullies with a more specific critique of using social media as personal validation.
There are other good, less memorable tracks – “Forget About You”, “Forevermore”, “Does She” featuring Jay Park – and these are fine as filler. The emotional peak of the album, though, is at the very end: “Tiada Akhir”, a simple enchantment of piano, rainfall, and Yuna’s voice at its most velvet, echoing in the quiet storm – Yuna proudly voicing her identity by taking the bold, simple step of singing a song in her native Malay. Short and solemn, it is this track seals Rouge as Yuna’s most well-developed album to date and a model for music in a pop scene that continues to embrace a larger world thanks to trailblazers like her.