Contributor via Pitchfork
Don’t be fooled by the of-the-moment pop sound: The 24-year-old singer’s debut album is the showcase for a refreshingly original perspective.
or Lolo Zouaï, flexing is a matter of authenticity, not fronting. The 24-year old singer’s debut album, High Highs to Low Lows, is full of pop hooks and casual brags, yet Zouaï sounds most proud—and comfortable—when working with the real facts of her life, particularly when they lack glamour. “I can’t wait to really get paid, not just minimum wage,” she sings on the title track, which serves as a mission statement of sorts. “They think it’s all Gucci but it’s 99 cents/I swear.”
The child of French-Algerian immigrants, Zouaï, who sings in both English and French, contributed songwriting last year to H.E.R.’s Grammy-winning self-titled album. Her own music, which she’s released sparingly over the past year, blends the vulnerability of H.E.R.’s lyricism, the hip-hop-adjacent bounce of thank u, next-era Ariana Grande, and the electro-pop experimentation of AlunaGeorge. High Highs to Low Lows, written entirely by Zouaï and produced by her frequent collaborator Stelios Phili (responsible for Young Thug and Elton John’s “High”), is compelling in its movement between sultry, charismatic bops and moody, melancholy slow-burners. Zouaï finished recording the album before signing with RCA, and the record feels genuinely like Zouaï’s own project, each song a vehicle for a different part—sensual, depressed, cocky, homesick, in love—of the same whole.
Keeping with the Grande-embodied, lite-hip-hop wave currently washing over contemporary pop, High Highs to Low Lowsincorporates trap bass and brooding synths into an effective, of-the-moment sound. On single “Ride,” Stelios builds a swirling whirlpool of timpani, guitar plucks, claps, and looped yodels to create a coquettish, urgent banger. Highlight “Out the Bottle,” with its faux-rap delivery and candy-coated beat, is a sonic cousin of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” but unlike that song’s hollow boasting, which feels crass and unearned, Zouaï’s joy in simply getting drunk on a plane is contagious and convincing. Several songs, like the bilingual “Moi,” feature outros that turn unexpectedly melodic or drowsily chopped and screwed, as if to hint that even on the poppiest songs, Zouaï and Stelios are giving us only a taste of their full abilities.
For all of the album’s fun—and it really is fun, particularly the PG-13 “Caffeine”—Zouaï excels at looking inward. “Summers in Vegas” recaps the singer’s time with her father, who owned pizza stores outside of Vegas, with vivid precision. “Pour your wine in a red cup/I saw you hide it under the register,” Zouaï sings, somberly. “The desert strip is no place for a kid.” “Desert Rose,” which features the album’s most accomplished songwriting, directly addresses Zouaï’s family in Algeria, who’ve exiled her for leading what they call a life of sin. “‘Inshallah,’ that’s what you say/You think I lost my faith,” she sings, both pained and self-righteous. She finishes with a refrain of “Habibi”—which translates to “my love” in Arabic—effectively pleading for, but not expecting, reconciliation. Sequencing the two songs amid a series of upbeat anthems undercuts their power somewhat, but they nonetheless add color and history to Zouaï’s evolving story, one that she is intent on telling in her own voice.
Zouaï wears her heart on her sleeve, and it sometimes gets in the way; “Here to Stay,” an ode to depression that recalls the mournful guitars of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” tips the scale away from introspection and toward melodrama. Mostly, though, she stays on the right side of vulnerable, detailing her own peaks and valleys with charisma, wit, and raw introspection. High Highs to Low Lows works because Zouaï feels real and multidimensional: silly, swaggering, sexy, and deeply human. “Don’t take myself too serious/Tough body, soft interior,” she sings on the sun-drenched “Chevy Impala.” It’s a precocious outlook on life: As long as you know yourself and trust the process, Zouaï’s music implies, even the lowest of lows are just stops on the way back up.