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Albums Of The Year: Nilüfer Yanya's Universe Is Vast, Immediate, And Now

Her cosmos-spanning debut 'Miss Universe' showcases the songwriter's knack for making the intimate feel expansive

Imagine if you could outsource your own self-care. Instead of ambling mindfully toward enlightenment, you’d simply dial a hotline to connect to a service that did your fretting for you. “We worry about you so you don’t have to,” a robotic monotone would tell you once you’ve connected, purging all your anxieties for total mental clarity. That’s the pitch, anyway. The reality, as you might imagine, would be much grimmer.

That scenario runs through Nilüfer Yanya’s debut album, Miss Universe, and yet the music itself doesn’t sound the least bit grim. Instead, the project is a cosmic collection that finds a new adventure in every song. Throughout, the London singer-songwriter flaunts her greatest gift, versatility and virtuosity of the electric guitar, which she makes bark (“In Your Head”), wobble (“Paradise”), glimmer (“Melt”), and more. Every song she creates stays grounded in her voice, a soulful fog wise beyond her twenty-something years of actual experience. Even as she delivers a frantic skyward plea (“It is not safe here, please take me or they might”), Yanya sounds completely liberated. That’s the great trick Miss Universe pulls over its 17 songs, 53 minutes, and endless repeatability: You’re right there with her, even as you disappear inside your own head.

It’s tempting to label Yanya an upstart, especially since her early SoundCloud uploads had her fielding offers from music executives at 20. But she spent years perfecting her songcraft with sparse compositions led first by her gentle strumming and later colored by the mournful saxophone of her childhood friend and collaborator Jazzi Bobbi. Translated here to a larger scale by adding a full band, the songs go supersonic. Where lead single “In Your Head” could work as an elegant, minimal affair without drums or distortion, producers John Congleton and Sean Cook beef it up, padding Yanya’s presence with positively Bonzo-sized drum pounds (courtesy of session ace, R.E.M. and Beck studio mainstay Joey Waronker) and glittered-up guitar lines. (Congleton and Cook are two of ten listed producers and co-writers; each track lives in its own galaxy.) The result is a pat summary of the entire album. It’s one thing to be moved by Yanya’s quiet finesse in a small nightclub, but Miss Universe beams her directly to a bombastic arena stage without losing any of her music’s immediateness. You simply can’t miss it.

Sprinkled across this newfound musical dynamism, Yanya and producer Wilma Archer place interludes pondering questions of existential wellbeing. WWAY Health, the fictional service providing the outsourced care mentioned earlier in this piece, feels so antiseptic and tacitly apocalyptic that it adds a clever, modern through line to an album that already feels timeless just nine months after its release. These brief lulls remain separate enough from the main sonic action — the whirring carousel that concludes “Baby Blu,” the space-rip she surges toward on “Angels” — that each merely ends up a heady palette cleanser for the next tune-up.

"How much control do you want to give away?" Yanya told MTV News earlier this year about the album’s overarching concept. "For everything you get, you give something away. And I think my conclusion is that your mind is the last safe space, really, and if you can't look after your mind and you can't keep it safe, if you have to open it up to everything, then you have no control. It's kind of a scary thought, really."

A lack of control would be scary for an artist as exacting as Yanya. She’s spoken about her love for the guitar music she grew up listening to — The Strokes, The Libertines — but a recent playlist feature revealed she’s lately been grooving to Nigerian duo Lijadu Sisters and Amerie’s eternal “1 Thing,” as well as covering Frank Ocean. Even as Miss Universe is categorically a rock album that relies on rock-album hallmarks (prominent guitars and percussion), its most thrilling moments come when instruments either fall away completely, leaving Yanya’s hearty voice in the spotlight, or when the notion of genre completely evaporates. “Tears” and “Heat Rises” are celebratory electro-pop, but they’re followed by the austere “Monsters Under the Bed.” As soon as you peg “Melt” as trip-hop, it locks into a laid-back soul groove. And because she’s still a storyteller at heart, Yanya closes things down alone, singing and strumming “Heavyweight Champion of the Year” into the empty air.

This is less an obliteration of genre than a natural reflection of how we create and consume music in the late 2010s. Even Miss Universe’s cadre of producers and co-writers follows the model of most mainstream contemporary pop albums, each lending a specific vision to a song. But the melange is all Yanya’s. In a year when the biggest songs consumed seemingly every aspect of our culture, demolished specifications fortified by previous decades, and potentially even nailed the coffin of genre shut for good, this isn’t even reactionary or revolutionary. It’s just the way things work now.

Right before she takes a bow on “Heavyweight,” Yanya narrates one final interlude. Her automated voice offers a chance to join the WWAY Health program’s second phase, only to quickly contradict herself: “Sorry, the selected function no longer exists. Please give up.” The plea falls on deaf ears. By that point, you’ve already given yourself over to the album’s charms. Miss Universe is ready for her crown.

Find all of MTV News's 2019 Albums of the Year right here.