When I first heard “New York 93,” by the Korean-American d.j. and producer Yaeji, it felt like something I’d waited for my whole life, only I’d never known to want it. The track, released by Godmode Records in 2016, begins with the faint outlines of a house tune—an echo of an echo, as synth pulses, bass kicks, and occasional drip-drops all hint at a euphoric anthem that takes its sweet time to peak. Yaeji whispers softly over the track, humming a singsong of English and Korean, as though she’s beckoning you closer to tell a secret. By the time that tambourines arrive, snapping everything into place, you’re like confidants. And then it abruptly comes to a close.
Much of the way in which we hear the world derives from how we grew up. Listening to Yaeji, I realized that the rhythms and cadences of various Asian languages, spoken at home or in friends’ houses, at restaurants or on Asian TV stations, were part of how I came to hear the world. These were voices that I occasionally tried to tune out. But they conveyed feelings and formalities, expressions of affection and angst, that didn’t always translate perfectly into English—the seemingly mellow, nagging lilt of Mandarin, for example, might actually communicate desperate yearning. These different emotional registers have become more familiar to us all. As K-pop becomes a global force, it trains listeners from around the world in how to hear anew. You don’t need to understand Korean to luxuriate in the music’s extravagant approach to melodrama, the liberating effects of the ecstatic and the garish.
Yaeji, whose real name is Kathy Lee, was born in Queens in 1993. Her family moved to Long Island, and then to Atlanta, before settling in South Korea. In 2011, she returned to the United States to study at Carnegie Mellon, where she became immersed in dance music. She began making tracks and d.j.’ing for the college radio station, occasionally uploading songs to SoundCloud. She followed “New York 93” with two great EPs, which fleshed out her cute, almost miniaturized fusion of vocal house and Asian pop. She covered Drake’s house-tinged R. & B. hit “Passionfruit,” replacing the original’s wounded machismo with a kind of tender resilience. As increasingly happens these days, she moved relatively quickly from posting music for free online to playing festivals such as Coachella. Her songs continued to toggle between moments of twee intimacy and the collectivizing throb of the dance floor. “Raingurl,” a track from 2017, alternates between soupy house rhythms and ethereal synths, as Yaeji describes timidly walking into the club: “Mother Russia in my cup / And my glasses fogging up / Oh yeah, hey dawg, hey, what’s up.”
The mixtape “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던,” which comes out this week, is her first release on XL Recordings. “Thanks to the ones that walk alongside me / I can continue on,” she sings in Korean on the title track. There’s more of a soaring, strident quality to her voice than on her early songs, which often evoked a fuzzy, A.S.M.R.-like feeling. “The things I drew,” she continues, “I’ve created that world / With the people I love.”
It wasn’t until Yaeji began getting acclaim in the Korean press that her parents, who live in Seoul, truly understood what she did. Her success has brought her around the world, and the effects are apparent on “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던,” which is full of new collaborations with artists from the United States and Asia. “Money Can’t Buy,” featuring the Brooklyn rapper Nappy Nina, is like a hip-hop track put together on an assembly line, all bleeps, drill sounds, and sprays of machine exhaust. “Sit in a circle and look at each other and reminisce how we got to meet each other / Laugh with each other and show one another what it’s like to share love with each other,” Yaeji chants in English.
There’s a sketchbook quality to “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던,” straying from the straight-ahead house rhythms of her initial singles. The electro-thump of “In the Mirror 거울” moves toward moody, headbanging territory; “These Days 요즘” is like an excursion into dub-jazz, an unravelling steady beat serenaded by a distant, almost ghostly saxophone. Other tracks can feel frivolous, as if she were pressing Record simply to capture a fleeting moment. On “Free Interlude,” the rappers Lil Fayo, Trenchcoat, and Sweet Pea trade somewhat nonsensical verses. (“A church has a steeple / I like all sorts of people / Every type of person / Dimples, I have several.”) It sounds as though you’ve arrived too late to share in the joke.
I first heard Yaeji in 2016, during a time when going outside, let alone going out, was still a matter of personal choice. Her songs, slipstreams of language and feeling, suggested a future I wanted to see bloom.
I initially mistook the title “New York 93” for some nostalgic tip of the hat to a golden age of the city’s hip-hop and club scenes; in fact, it is simply the place and year of her birth. Musical revolutions are experienced anew each time young people happen across something they haven’t heard before. Last fall, Yaeji threw a party that she called “Elancia,” an attempt to recall the days when she began raving in New York, in the early part of the past decade—many years after what people often presume to be the city’s creative peak. It’s easy to get hung up on whether a sound or a style is truly original—or whether the brash new generation just suffers from historical amnesia. Yet the original part, the feeling that propels young artists forward, is that of discovery.
It’s been odd to listen to “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던” in the past couple of weeks, as calls to isolate ourselves have grown increasingly urgent. Yaeji’s music is about the opposite of “social distancing”: going out, idly basking in the brilliance of your friends, sweating alongside strangers. In our lowest moments, the thing that makes life meaningful is the realization that those who came before us found meaning, and endured. For many, that idea becomes clearest in the presence of others. Yaeji’s music has always been about communion and friendship, portals into other possible time lines around the globe. And that’s precisely what makes it such a tease right now. “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던” is a collection of drafts and sketches, glimpses into a career on the go. But, for the time being, none of us is going anywhere.
Listening to music hasn’t brought me much comfort lately, because it reminds me that the past seems impossibly far away, and the future promises only uncertainty. Being present is no longer a choice, the stuff of meditation or wellness. It’s a condition of life. Listening to Yaeji alone last week, the highs somehow felt higher, and the silly parts seemed even sillier. “Introverse from an introvert,” G.L.A.M. raps on “Spell 주문,” which feels like a scaled-down K-pop anthem; it gets funnier the more I listen to it. The lush synths that announce “My Imagination 상상” sound even dreamier. “What I wanna do / Eat rice and soup,” Yaeji raps in Korean on “Money Can’t Buy.” “What I wanna have / Money can’t buy.”
When you engage with art or music, you are exploring someone else’s imagination. It’s never yours, even if you’re the one who made it. It’s a gift, a secret that’s passed among those who care, changing the texture of existence, maybe in minuscule ways. There’s nothing better than listening to music with strangers—dancing, sharing amazement, scanning faces to see if you’re the only one in this moment. Afterward, life no longer sounds the same. For now, these songs by a young Korean-American woman telling us about the world she sees—a world brought into being with friends, goofing around in a studio or sweating together on a dance floor—are about some bygone way of life, or simply a reminder of what awaits, as long as you can wait. ♦