The New York and Seoul-based Kathy Yaeji Lee is one of the most fascinating vocalists to appear in house music of late. Her languid debut EP is full of elliptical earworms.
“Full of It”—
When you think of house vocalists, you might recall the larger-than-life pipes and jaunty delivery of ’90s-era singers—like Barbara Tucker, Kathy Sledge, or Meli’sa Morgan—who channel the genre’s primordial disco and R&B roots. In recent years, Disclosure and their coterie of singers have mimicked those booming pop-house styles. But a wave of underground house singers are doing something different—something whispered, sleepy, and sparse. Galcher Lustwerk pioneered a new way forward for house vocalists, an unadorned simplicity.
Enter Kathy Yaeji Lee, the 23-year-old New York and Seoul-based DJ behind the electronic project Yaeji—one of the most fascinating vocalists to appear in house music of late. Musically, she shares in the foggy and dazed deep house of Galcher, DJ Richard, or Florian Kupfer. But unlike her forebears, she presents a singing voice that doesn’t have any immediate comparisons. She is equally lackadaisical, but the pure quality of her voice is a true curiosity. On her self-titled EP, Lee displays all the modalities her voice has to offer.
Across Yaeji’s five tracks, Lee’s voice is at once present and just barely there. Singing in Korean and English, she sounds both smoky and bubbly—languid in mood, but fast-paced in her inflection. She shifts between a relaxed whisper and endearing spoken word, maintaining a melancholy register throughout. Her voice slinks and slithers across the relatively barebone beats she made alongside GODMODE’s Nick Sylvester (a former Pitchfork contributor). Hiding in plain sight are evocative, often personal or political lyrics that give Lee’s songs an unexpected emotional texture.
Opener “Noonside” is about waiting in line at border patrol, and “New York 93” reflects on her childhood memories of the city. On both, she’s aided by a very minimal set of tools: There’s often just a slippery synth line, quiet drums, and then slight but ominous vocal processing. The messages are not necessarily clear on a first listen; as Lee quickly repeats her phrases, it’s hard to grab onto her words. The effect, though, is undeniably catchy. She hammers away at elliptical, enigmatic phrases until they are lodged in your brain. But then again, some of her songs only gain extra weight once you’ve gleaned a lyric sheet; whatever feeling of seriousness they are supposed to connote can be lost in the shuffle.
Alongside these private songs, Lee shows a knack for writing both silly and more straightforward dance music. On the album’s highlight, “Guap”—a cover of a song by Australian house producer Mall Grab—Lee sings about counting cash in her “German whip” and a long night of clubbing with a deadpan monotone. It’s hard to know if she’s joking or serious, and it might not even matter, because “Guap” is an earworm through and through. This same quality carries towards the album’s closer “Full of It,” which is moody, effective house music. Standing at little under 20 minutes, this EP finds Lee flitting between more emotional pop and by-the-book dance music, not necessarily choosing one or the other. Yaeji feels like a sampler of what Lee can do, or a brief sketch of who she might become.