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Empress Of Teaches Us To Dance Through The Pain

On April 15, 2020

“I’m really grateful,” Lorely Rodriguez, aka Empress Of, says. “I’m healthy. I’m actually really good because I’m putting out my record and it’s giving me some positivity in my life right now.”

She’s calling from her home in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she has a small studio in which she recorded her vibrant, commanding third album, I’m Your Empress Of.

It’s an eminently danceable affair, flitting between different modes of electronic music — sometimes house, sometimes reggaeton, sometimes dream pop, often all at once — and hung together by Rodriguez’s assured voice and vision aided by executive producer BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Banks). It feels like music with a crowded dance floor built-in, intended for communal experiences but released in a time of mandatory solitude.

Rodriguez wrote I’m Your Empress Of in a two-month stint in between tours, gathering both the adrenaline rush of touring and the sadness of a relationship reaching its end and channeling both into a state of “intense inspiration.” After being surrounded by audiences, she came home to an empty house and put herself into her music. The process, she said, was a bit of a blur: four songs written in the span of a week, 10-hour sessions where her emotions and passions spilled out of her without any recollection as to how it happened.

Something she does remember: the lead track — also the title track — was the first song she wrote. “That was a really big catalyst for everything on the album,” she said. “I always thought I would do,” she says, before pausing a beat. “I didn’t think I would do it, but everyone assumed that I would do a trilogy,” she said, referring to Me and Us, her first two albums.

The way she puts it, I’m Your Empress Of is a 34-minute experience of a groundswell of intensely felt emotions — desire, desperation, sexiness — that culminate into a riot. There’s a constant smolder that animates the album, the push-and-pull between the visceral pleasures of dancing and the inherent loneliness of dancing on your own like a flame emanating from striking a match. In her words, “it’s like crying on the dance floor.”

“I want to really showcase the dance songs on this record, because dancing has been so healing for me. When I made those songs, I really needed to exert this energy — this emotion that was causing me a lot of pain.”

“Void” rides a placid dembow until her voice, stretched-out and bracing, pulls the song’s slack groove taut around her. Elsewhere, on the pop&B-minded “Not the One,” she guides a hookup who strikes a figure not unlike her ex’s through the motions (“Use both hands, use both hands,” she commands) that would have come effortlessly before. There’s a moment — the bridge on “What’s the Point” — that Rodriguez points to as one of her favorite moments in the album, a moment where she lets a wordless pause linger for a beat too long.

Much of the album’s gravitas comes from her mother, whose voice is the only other one that appears throughout the album, serving as commentator, guiding light and moral compass.

The first time she appears, on the album’s title track, she says the feeling of having her daughter is like “having thousands of girls because look at how many times she reproduce herself in each bunch of you.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, serving as both a thesis for the album, and for the larger mission of Empress Of.

“These things that I write about, like they, they leave me and they, they belong to other people and people can use them to heal or to express themselves or to dance,” she said.

Rodriguez never planned on releasing an album during a global crisis. And as much as we try to envision an album’s role in a particular cultural moment, it’s tricky to conflate an album borne out of personal catharsis into something that necessarily has to serve a larger purpose.

“Everything I’ve done that reflects what’s happening socially, whether it’s, like, writing ‘Woman is a Word,’ has reflected the time but that wasn’t an intentional thing. It was just something I was going through.”

The personal bleeds into the political, to be sure, but it doesn’t always need to be an anthem. Sometimes, the pleasure can just be a means to its own end.

“This record came out of a really painful place, and writing it was extremely cathartic and healing,” she said. “That’s all I can really hope for — that it makes other people feel as good as it was to record.”

Profile Picture of Joshua Bote
Joshua Bote

Joshua Bote is a writer and reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has written for NPR, Paste and USA Today, among other places.

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