Yuna @ Chop Suey w/Jarrell Perry & Bosco
May 11, 2016
By Sam Chapman
It’s a strange thing, but you don’t often go to local shows and hear a lot of classically beautiful singing.
To be clear, there are some tremendous voices in Seattle (the force of nature that is Julia Shapiro’s deadpan yowl comes to mind) but the fact of the matter is that most punk/rock/hip-hop/DIY-whatever is predicated on the notion that content trumps vocal idiosyncrasy.
Which is fine and cool and whatever. But ,I’ve gotta admit, there’s a real thrill to hearing LA’s Jarell Perry– dude can sing. His voice is a supple tenor that seems just as capable of thrusting upward in a belt as it is of traditional R&B falsetto. It’s the kind of voice that immediately compels beautiful young women (and men) to sway and whoop.
In Let’s Talk About Love, Slate music critic Carl Wilson remarks that R&B has perhaps become contemporary music’s most sprawling sonic wonderland. Listening to tracks like “Win” and “Driving Blind,” you can hear what he means. Perry’s set was lit with the vocal stylings of an afternoon at church, set against a sonic background that sounds like a dystopian nightclub. The back beats are cold, digitally-tinged lattice works of beeps and boops. In recordings they pulse and throb, but in person they flatten out to make way for that voice.
As a first opener, he was a phenomenal choice. He set was smooth and exciting- not a spectacle to compete with the later acts exactly, but people were really into it. The fact that Perry is tall, affable and very attractive probably didn’t hurt.
In the beginning, Bosco seemed so promising. The Savannah, Georgia performer catwalked onstage dressed in a t-shirt emblazoned with her own face, seemingly no pants, and matching gold chokers on her neck and thigh. She is also beautiful (that was sort of a trend with the whole show) and very high energy. So far, so good.
Bosco makes hip-hop infused dance music that sounds a bit like Pro Nails-era Kid Sister, but filtered through the cool sexiness of Junglepussy or Dai Burger. Watching her live, you can tell that Bosco (and her DJ!) is sharp. Girl knows her references. Her set was an almost-continuous mix that incorporated samples of MIA and Tweet, New York ball tracks (“MYNE”), Chicago house (“Names”), dancehall (“Shooter”) and gagsta rap (“Beemer”).
In theory, it should have been great, but Bosco somehow missed the mark. She obviously draws heavily on queer hip-hop, but her performance lacked any of the subversion – the dagger-behind-the-back swagger that take you up to the line of decency but promises that if it wanted it could blow your head off – that makes queer hip-hop as a movement and genre so much fucking fun. I get it. It was an all-ages show and she was having a great time. But if you’re going to wear a leather bondage choker on your thigh, I expect something more interesting than half-hearted voguing and giving the mic to gaping co-eds.
Yuna took the stage in a bright red overcoat and was backed, to my surprise, by a full band. It was the first in a series of surprises from the night, both good and not-so-great.
Yuna seemingly has a ton of very devoted fans. The audience skewed young, non-white, and top-knotted but it really was one of the more diverse crowds I’ve seen in Seattle. Chop Suey is so small that it always kind of looks full, but it really did seem packed.
One of the most exciting things about Yuna’s performance was the fact that it showcased the rapidly changing face of pop music. It was incredibly satisfying to stand in a room of mostly young people and watch them scream and whoop in devotion to a slim brown girl in a headwrap, who looks like them and speaks specifically to their experiences. Opening with Beyonce’s “Sorry” (off Lemonade, for those of you who didn’t bother to get your free Tidal trial) and at one point breaking into a Malaysian folk song, you get a real sense that Yuna know this about her audience.
As a pop harbringer, Yuna is great, but as a pop star, she has some work to do. The main issue is that most of her music occupies the sort of indie synth-pop sphere that has produced some of the best pop songs of the last few years, and she just doesn’t measure up. “Mountains,” the second song off both her album Nocturnal and the night’s set, is perhaps the only track that comes close to capturing the delightful stickiness of her contemporaries. Songs like “Lanes” came off overwrought and whiny when they should have smoldered.
And whether cause or effect, Yuna doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in the role of “indie pop star.” The best moments of the night were on tracks like “I Want You Back,” when Yuna shed her synth-pop nonsense in favor of cabaret intimacy and let her band breathe a little. When she’s not trying to be a knock-off Caroline Polachek, she’s possessed of the same vivid intimacy that Eartha Kitt managed to deploy so successfully for so many years. But then suddenly she’d start into “Crush” and the whole effect would fall apart.