Tune-Yards’ third album Nikki Nack begins with Merrill Garbus singing about struggling with the pressure to create new music. She’s feeling blocked, and responding to the suggestion from some dude — the only context we have for him is that she thinks “he seemed like a really nice guy” — that the way around her lack of inspiration is to “find a new way” to sing. Someone would only offer Garbus that kind of seemingly simple advice because she’s already made bold, unrestrained singing and musical originality seem so easy. Her previous album w h o k i l l stood apart from everything in either pop or indie music that year, with its idiosyncratic rhythms and Garbus’ loud, highly versatile voice. The record edged out major releases by Jay Z and Kanye West, Adele, and Bon Iver to top the Village Voice’s 2011 critics poll. Even in its quietest moments, w h o k i l l practically screamed, “This is who I am, deal with it!” and the brashness of Garbus’ funky, abrasive, politically provocative music dared the listener to do the same.
Nikki Nack in large part deals with what you do after you’ve established yourself as an individual, and your freak flag has long since flown. Garbus faces this head on in “Real Thing,” a song that wrestles with what it means for people to label you as “real,” especially when you only see yourself as a product of your influences. It’s textbook impostor syndrome set to polyrhythms, and complicated by Garbus’ ambivalence about her American nationality, a theme that pops up throughout her body of work. Garbus, who grew up in Connecticut and graduated from the prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts, draws heavily on international influences — most especially Haitian music and Congolese funk — and benefits in the United States from playing to an audience that’s often becoming newly acquainted with that music.
But all the same, the way Garbus synthesizes ideas about rhythm and harmony and vocalization from those cultures with elements of American folk, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and children’s music is what makes her records more or less unclassifiable. Whereas she previously built her songs around chord structures played on a ukulele, Nikki Nack eliminates that almost entirely in favor of placing all emphasis on syncopated rhythms and vocal harmony, particularly on cuts like “Sink-O” and “Time of Dark.” It never feels as though she’s simply grafting an “exotic” texture on otherwise standard American pop songwriting to seem worldly or cultured — her influences blur together seamlessly, and start at the foundation of her songs. If you interpret the “real thing” as authenticity and cultural purity, then this is not it. But if the “real thing” is art that is the product of a distinct, undiluted personality with a unique point of view, it most certainly is.
Garbus doesn’t spend all of her time dwelling on her art and career, but her recent success — however modest it may be compared to superstars like Taylor Swift, or even indie stars like Vampire Weekend and The National — amplifies an anxiety about privilege that’s been a running theme in her music since her debut, Bird-Brains, came out in 2009. It comes out when she sings about gentrification warping the character of a community in “Left Behind,” or when she sings about public utilities crumbling when funding is cut off in the single “Water Fountain,” which has the playful rhythms and cadences of a schoolyard chant. Garbus sings about other people with great empathy and endless curiosity, and with a lot more generosity than when she addresses her own anxieties and concerns. It’s no surprise that when she comes up with a solution to problem of how to “find a new way,” she finds it in observing the strength of other people around her. “When I see you changing, I believe that I could change too!,” she exclaims, sounding as though she’s cracked a code. The Garbus of Nikki Nack isn’t quite the superhumanly self-assured warrior-woman of w h o k i l l, but in showing us this vulnerability and crisis of confidence, she’s even more inspiring. Hearing her change makes you feel like you can change too.