Yuna is a pop and R&B singer-songwriter from Malaysia who became internationally known in 2012 off of her self-titled album. On her new album Rouge, Yuna collaborates with musicians from all around the world: Tyler the Creator from the United States, Little Simz from England, Miyavi from Japan and more. That diversity is a great aspect of the album. On production duties, Yuna invites Robin Hannibal, who has worked with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Little Dragon and Rhye. This collaboration makes a big impact because the beats are much more dance-worthy than on Yuna’s previous projects. The one exception is the closer, which is a quiet piano ballad, complete with rain sound effects.
The production is solidly built, calling on many shades of throwback dance music. “Pink Youth” and “Blank Marquee” feature nu-disco rhythm guitars. “Forget About You” has a tinge of deep house, and “Likes” almost has a lo-fi hip-hop beat. A lot of the instrumentation has a pleasant analog sound. The production often gets the listener’s head nodding along, before losing the listener’s attention and fading into the background.
Perhaps the most special aspect of Rouge is Yuna’s whisper-soft singing voice, which she uses for the duration of the whole album. Yuna sings as if into a lover’s ear, languorously and sensuously. This certainly separates Yuna from many of her dance-pop contemporaries, who largely sing with bright, clear vocals, with notable exceptions such as AlunaGeorge and Billie Eilish. Despite her quiet register, Yuna sings expressively and in tune. This all adds up to a compelling vocal.
Yuna’s lyrics are decent and paint the portraits of heartbreak, girl power and yearning that are so common with female pop singer-songwriters. There are a few boy-girl duets on the album. An interesting aspect of these songs is that after Yuna is done singing her side of the situation, the boy sings his answer or perspective. For example, on “Does She” featuring Jay Park, Yuna thinks about her ex and asks him if his new girlfriend loves him like she did. Jay Park responds in his verse that he is happy in his new relationship and that yes, his new girlfriend adores him. While simple, it is welcome for a guest feature to fit so seamlessly with the lyrical concept of a pop song.
All of these ingredients are great when considered on their own; the biggest issue of the album is the combination of these flavors. In other words, the danceable, rhythmic production does not match with the chilled-out vocals. Dance music makes people dance, and people dance to relieve tension; however, Yuna’s vocals are tensionless. Thus the beats and vocals have contradictory purposes – how can someone relieve tension where there is none? This works for AlunaGeorge and Billie Eilish because those singers’ voices are edgier and punkier. No matter how interesting Yuna’s lyrics are, people do not dance when hearing an interesting story, they would most likely sit down in rapt attention in order to capture every word. This is not to say lazy, whispery vocals are never good. Norah Jones and Daniel Caesar do a pretty good job with them. The key is that the production needs to match the vocals, whether both are chill and subtle, or both are fiery and energetic.
There is one track, “Amy,” where Yuna’s whispery vocals are properly complemented. The instrumental is more nocturnal, with strings and vocals hanging in the background. There’s even a sweet sensual saxophone solo. Yuna sings about her childhood friend, with whom Yuna lost contact during the course of life. Yuna wonders how her friend is doing and expresses her desire to reunite with her. With the dance element diminished, Yuna’s story shines through with genuine emotion.
The individual parts – vocals, lyrics, production – are good, but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The total package is not cohesive, and it’s a shame. Even still, many people may find enjoyment in the combination; play this in the background of a party, or during sexy time. Otherwise, look somewhere else for pop pleasures.