From opening for Taylor Swift’s 2014 Red Tour in Jakarta to announcing her first headlining tour this year, 23-year-old Nicole Zefanya, known professionally as NIKI, is certainly on a career-defining upward trajectory. Yet, for the Indonesian singer-songwriter, remembrance of the past is just as important as anticipation of the future — a fact made abundantly clear in her sophomore studio record Nicole.
In previous projects, Zefanya developed a penchant for interweaving various musical styles to construct unique, genre-spanning soundscapes. Inspired by the likes of Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah, Zefanya drifted through her R&B-laden first EP Zephyr like an intoxicating summer breeze. In her conceptual debut album Moonchild, Zefanya adopted a dreamy alter ego as she traversed through an atmosphere infused with glossy, surging synthpop.
Released Aug. 12, Nicole is an assemblage of six reenvisioned original songs alongside six new tracks intended to outline Zefanya’s complex self-portrait. With this second full-length record, Zefanya sheds her simmering, bass-heavy radiance. Instead, she opts for stripped-down instrumentals and confessional lyricism as she revisits her teenage years in Jakarta. However, somewhere down the well-worn path of reflection and nostalgia, she retraces her footsteps one too many times and ends up stumbling into a monotonous haze.
Similar to the record’s cover art, which depicts a blurry headshot of the singer-songwriter, much of Nicole lacks distinctive form. Tracks such as “High School in Jakarta,” “Backburner” and “Autumn” share almost identical compositions: breezy baselines, gently pulsating synth melodies and Zefanya’s trademark treacly vocals. Without Zefanya’s characteristic experimentation, these songs effectively become indistinguishable from one another.
Other numbers suffer not from repetition, but rather lackluster production. On the album’s lead single and opener “Before,” dull percussive notes and an unengaging melody unfurl aimlessly over the course of nearly four minutes. Although Zefanya waxes poetic about a failed long-distance relationship, her feelings of frustration are curtailed by restrained, muted musicality.
Still, unapologetic vulnerability percolates through the foreground of multiple tracks — a testament to Zefanya’s expressive storytelling. On the acoustic guitar-backed “Anaheim,” she confesses deep-rooted commitment issues to her partner. “In a perfect world, I’d kill to love you the loudest/ But all I do is live to hurt you soundless,” Zefanya warbles remorsefully in a delicate yet purposeful falsetto. “On The Drive Home” crafts a more devoted narrative with figurative language that enfolds listeners in a tender sense of security.
Even with Zefanya’s aptitude for evocative lyricism, Nicole experiences fleeting moments where insightful, candid songwriting reverts into contrived indie pop. “It can never work ’cause I’m an Enneatype 4 Aquarius,” Zefanya sings in “Keeping Tabs,” her honeyed tone oozing with exasperation. While intended to appear relatable or humorous, this oddly specific reference comes off as manufactured, obtrusive and even borderline pretentious. Disconnected lyrical decisions like these leave Nicole feeling less like a polished final project and more like an underdeveloped rough draft.
Arguably, the record’s strongest track is “Oceans and Engines,” proving that Zefanya is at her best when baring her soul during slow burning ballads. Over the course of two extended verses, a soft guitar strums like gentle waves beneath Zefanya’s wistful vocals. As she explores the struggles of maintaining a long distance relationship, turbulent emotions finally crescendo and crash into a swelling, atmospheric chorus.
During this hook, Zefanya declares, “I’ll always love you, that’s why I/ Wrote you this very last song/ I guess this is where we say goodbye,” her voice trembling with painful weight on the last word. Born of desperation, heartbreak and agonizing acceptance, “Oceans and Engines” captures the essence of Nicole’s introspective, aching nostalgia.
Although at times instrumentally tedious and unimaginative, Zefanya’s second studio album weaves together past regrets, apologies and emotional revelations with stripped-down sincerity. Titled fittingly after her first name, Nicole is an honest attempt at a self-portrait, one that Zefanya will undoubtedly continue to refine through future works.