NIKI impresses with her debut album “Moonchild”

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“Moonchild.” Photo courtesy of @nikizefanya on Instagram

NIKI, the up-and-coming pop star from the Asian music collective 88rising that is home to artists such as Joji and Rich Brian, released her debut album “Moonchild” early last month. The 21-year-old Indonesian singer-songwriter made quite the impression on the music industry with her breakout EP “Zephyr” back in 2018 and has continued to grow with hit singles and features since then. 

“Moonchild” is a continuation of the growth that NIKI has shown over the last few years. Going beyond many expectations that people had for her debut album, the 10-track, 35-minute “Moonchild” is a mystical concept album split into three parts, each meant to represent different phases of the moon.

This separated tracklist is not just for show. Every phase has a different sound and tone among its songs. Phase one consists of some of the darker yet groovier songs on the album. The songs with more spacey production and grand vocals on the record come in phase two. Phase three holds some of the slower yet more powerful and thoughtful ballads of the entire album.

The album opens up with the track “Wide Open (Foreword),” which starts with NIKI’s smooth vocals over a stripped-down beat as she introduces us to the fairytale world of this album. NIKI gives us a “word of warning” on this track, telling the audience to “keep an eye wide open.” The lyrics are more ominous than what I have come to expect from NIKI. Her delivery on this track is darker and more aggressive than usual. This opening track surprised me quite a bit when I first heard it, and immediately pulled me into the world of “Moonchild.”

The foreword transitions smoothly into the next track, “Switchblade,” which officially marks the beginning of phase one on the album. The song is sung from the perspective of the Moonchild, who describes their experience of discovering a new place, saying “What is this place? The skies are vast and no one’s a familiar face. But I’m not afraid.” This song symbolizes NIKI’s personal journey of moving to the United States on her own at only 18 years old.

Sonically, the song consists of a synth-heavy pop beat over very light and airy vocals from NIKI. While this isn’t my favorite sound or style that NIKI utilizes on this album, it does contribute to the mysticism of the Moonchild world that she established with the opening track.

Next up is the song “Nightcrawlers,” a fun, bumping R&B track where NIKI displays a slick flow on the first verse. The tone of the track becomes eerier with the bridge, where the chorus is repeated in a heavily altered, ominous voice that still sounds pleasing to the ear. NIKI follows that up with a darker delivery on the second verse over a stripped-down version of the beat from earlier in the song. Overall, it’s a catchy song that fits in well with the darker theme of phase one. 

“Selene” is the final track of phase one, a song in which the singer is possessed by Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon. This is the first track of the album that wowed me. NIKI begins with a quiet, subdued delivery over a jazzy baseline. As the instrumental picks up and the drums come in, NIKI’s vocals become high-pitched and more emphatic. The instrumental is groovy, NIKI’s vocals are sensual, and the song makes me want to get up and dance. 

The song “Tide” marks the beginning of phase two. With the shift in phases comes a shift in sound and tone, as the track opens with NIKI’s dark vocals over an extremely stripped-down beat. NIKI’s quiet yet dark delivery is reminiscent of Billie Eilish; then about halfway through the track, the drums pick up, and NIKI begins to rap in a chaotic and altered voice that makes it sound as though she is screeching her lyrics. The song closes out with a soft piano and strings instrumental over a swirl of fading voices, creating an eerie sense of calm after the chaos earlier in the track. The song, with the calm beginning, chaotic middle and peaceful end, represents a tidal wave as it builds and then eventually hits land.

“Pandemonium” is next up on the tracklist. It is one of the more forgettable songs on the album. It is a simple, straightforward R&B track, with not much else to offer. NIKI’s vocals are enjoyable, as they always are for me, but nothing about this track really stands out amongst the other songs or NIKI’s discography in general.

“Lose,” which immediately follows “Pandemonium,” suffers from many of the same problems as the previous track. I tend to be a sucker for emotional and powerful piano ballads, which makes it easy for me to enjoy this track. The problem lies in the fact that NIKI plays it extremely safe with her vocals on this track. The heavenly strings and impactful piano on the instrumental build-up at points in the song that seem to suggest that NIKI’s vocal performance will build up to match them, but there is never a point on the track where that happens. While her vocal performance isn’t bad by any means, I felt myself being a bit underwhelmed.

“Plot Twist,” a flirty, upbeat pop song, is next, which is the first track of phase three of the album. This is a much-needed change of pace from the previous few tracks that were slower, darker and more emotional. “If There’s Nothing Left…” is the most reflective track on the album. In this song, NIKI is singing to someone very special to her, someone who will always be there even “if there’s nothing left.” This track also has one of my favorite vocal performances on the entire album. NIKI’s singing is so passionate and angelic, and it matches the ups and downs in the instrumental perfectly.

The album closes strong with the song “Drive On,” one of my favorite tracks from the album. The reflective and nostalgic feel of the track makes it the perfect song to turn on during a peaceful drive, and once again, the vocal performance is astounding. Her delivery of the line “‘Cause the beasts have scattered” gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. The end of the track slowly fades away, almost like a film slowly cutting to black at the end.

“Moonchild” is full of ups and downs. Starting with the ups, the production and vocal performances are great all around. There are also plenty of standout tracks, with “Nightcrawlers,” “Selene,” “If There’s Nothing Left…” and “Drive On” being my absolute favorites. Overall, this album lends itself very well to a casual listen. There are very few songs, if any, that I would skip while listening to the album.

The problem arises with the concept itself. I think the concept is interesting, although not necessarily ambitious. However, it seems as though NIKI often prioritizes making popular mainstream songs over songs that fit the concept effectively. “Lose” is the biggest example of this, but it is not the only offender by any means.

Despite this, “Moonchild” is an extremely fun and enjoyable album. I would gladly recommend this to anyone who is a fan of pop and/or R&B.

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