The best reference point I have for Jessy Lanza’s voice is a particular sound I’ve only ever experienced on an Oregon beach, though that doesn’t mean it only belongs there. The sound emerges first as an image, a flock of birds suddenly filling the sky all at once, erasing the blue-black or gray that was there before with a hundred dots of any color. They might be white or grey dots like seagulls; they might be black and dark, or blue or brown, or too beige to count as anything but the absence of color. The sound follows the sight of it; the dots are flapping, which almost hits like a color. The sound is a feeling, like the dangerous swoosh of a semi but without any of the violence–there is power but it is delicate, fragile, hollow-boned. It feels feminine and fleeting. Then, just as suddenly, sound, image, and power are gone. This experience never lasts longer than a minute, half the reason it sticks in your brain is because of the brevity. Lanza’s second full-length record is called Oh No–it might as well be exclaiming over such a moment’s passage.
In a genre obsessed with history, knowledge, reference points, Lanza lets herself float in ephemera, and it’s the album’s strongest facet. Oh No, which came out last Friday, is a triumphant sophomore record brimming with watercolor house beats and grooves. Since the Ontario-based singer surfaced in 2013 via her Hyperdub debut Pull My Hair Back, the sound she helped pull toward mainstream’s center has lapped up on nearly every genre’s shore, but Lanza works out beyond that wave’s crest. The production–split between Lanza and her collaborator Jeremy Greenspan (of the Junior Boys)–is itchy, skeleton-key soul that insists on being linear in a field obsessed with loops. It’s astonishing stuff, but nobody is here for the production. The only critique anyone seemed to level at Lanza last time around was to thrust her voice into the spotlight, so here, she has done just that. Chance the Rapper’s unstoppable gospel squawk might have unexpectedly eclipsed this weekend, but Oh No is an album that works best in bursts, flits and sudden movements; let it wash over you during those early morning weekday moments that feel serene and temporary.
It isn’t just the skyward tilt of her voice that makes Oh No enthralling to listen to, though, but her embrace of every girly element that characterizes female speech. Stylistically, Oh No places Lanza firmly in the same territory as Grimes; she’s playing with the tinny, whispery and casual speaking patterns that makes teen girls the most fascinating and commanding speakers of the English language. Or, well, depends on who you ask–some blame the internet for being “guilty” of “abetting” the “the total teen-girlization of standard English”(yawn), but it’s Lanza’s very dedication to these speech patterns that makes Oh No a delight. Every vocal fry, every drawn out syllable, every screechy eek makes the album more amorphous. She’s given over herself to her voice with total abandon, she’s speaking in the language reserved for sleepovers, secrets and sex. Oh No is devoted to the frailty of feminine speech, wrapping it in the traditionally masculine world of synths and beats.
An unswerving dedication to femininity in a culture that makes a hobby out of belittling women is an act of courage, but Lanza pulls it off fearlessly. On “Going Somewhere” she takes turns dueting with herself in whispery form to dreamy-beg a partner to say they love her, alternating lines like a diary entry done in different colored gel pen. Or there’s “I Talk BB,” a beautifully nonsensical flirt that spooks the specter of house music past, then giggles. ”When you look into my eyes boy / Then it means I love you!” she erupts on the jittery standout track unsurprisingly titled after this sentiment, “It Means I Love You.” The accompanying video mimics the music’s kaleidoscopic feel, Lanza is wrapped in a glittery shroud and her voice is pitched high to a coo Self-seriousness disappears behind computer-chirped exultant girl code, a tender MASH note flushed with the euphoria of a crush and the solemnity of an adult vow. Throughout Oh No a tension between transience and dedication emerges–the vast canvas of the sky and a rush of birds filling it–the moment only works if it’s just that, a moment. The crush was never meant to last, it was meant to crush; Oh No captures all that potential, all the devastating fallout, and filters it through through Lanza’s surging feminized voice. Sound, image, power–then it’s gone. But BB, the feeling remains.