About a year-and-a-half after Merrill Garbus, who records under the moniker Tune-Yards, released her breakthrough 2011 sophomore record, “whokill,” a groove-inducing tour de force of looped vocals and African-inspired polyrhythms that made critics and crowds take notice, she couldn’t stand herself. “After hearing so much about yourself and your own music,” said the singer/multi-instrumentalist in a recent interview, “you say, ‘I know it’s not all about me, so what is it all about?'”
To find out, she took voice lessons, traveled to Haiti to study drumming and dance, recruited renowned producers Malay (Frank Ocean, Angel Haze) and John Hill (Shakira, M.I.A.) and even read Molly Leikin’s 1987 guide “How to Write a Hit Song.” The resulting album, “Nikki Nack,” due May 6 on 4AD, can be summed up in a line from the rumbling “Time of Dark”: “I’ll leave all my doubts behind.” With Garbus fully confident in her powers, she rockets ahead of her forward-thinking earlier material even further. She could risk leaving some listeners behind – there are no immediate anthems like “whokill’s” “Bizness” or “Gangsta.” But these 13 tracks hum and bounce with contagious enthusiasm, posing a challenge worth rising to.
Throughout the album, Garbus zings between her inspirations and eccentricities with newfound daring. Her signature call-and-response vocals, influenced by techniques and harmonies she soaked up during time spent studying in Kenya, lead “Find a New Way”; “Rocking Chair” segues from a stirring spiritual to bluegrass fiddling; and “Look Around” tricks out a sumptuous power ballad with garbled Auto-Tune. There’s even a reference to Lady Macbeth on the postapocalyptic campfire clap-along “Water Fountain”: “A blood-soaked dollar/I cannot get the spot out.” It all fits within her generous, curious wheelhouse.
Garbus enjoys herself on this album more than ever before, but she still prods at the thorny issues that have always been an integral part of her music, often with a feminist bent. “So sick of watching idly like a weak man/I need it, the trigger in my own hand,” she sings on “Stop That Man,” a song about corrupt police officers. “Left Behind” touches on gentrification and even fat-shaming: “Girls, while you worry about dress size six, they’re winning those tricks, those dicks!”
Garbus has never shied from blunt sex talk, either – on “whokill”‘s “Powa,” she says her man “likes it from behind.” On “Nikki Nack,” “Manchild” condescends to a pushy, premature-ejaculating suitor in the vein of ladies-first kiss-offs like TLC’s “No Scrubs” or Salt-N-Pepa’s “None of Your Business.” “I mean it, don’t beat up on my body!” she shouts in a machine-gun rhythm.
When Garbus started on “Nikki Nack,” she openly worried about ceding some creative control to Malay and Hill while remaining true to her artistic vision, one of music’s most individual. Fortunately, these fears were ungrounded: “Nikki Nack” distills and intensifies what makes Tune-Yards so unique and fearless.