Niki Zefanya nonetheless remembers the primary tune she wrote again in fourth grade. “I might nonetheless recite the lyrics to you now, however it wasn’t about something,” the singer-songwriter, recognized professionally as Niki—“however you’ll be able to name me Nic”—tells me over lunch within the Flatiron district on a current Wednesday afternoon. There wasn’t a lot of a story, she remembers: one thing a few boy who falls right into a nicely. “It was simply me rhyming,” Zefanya says earlier than leaning throughout the desk like we’re within the throes of a covert gab session, and cracks a figuring out grin. “The first first tune that I wrote that was really about one thing was in eighth grade, and it was about my crush.”
We’re assembly only a few days earlier than the discharge of Zefanya’s second studio album, Nicole, which has made the 23-year-old’s artistic previous significantly prime of thoughts. The sophomore-album downside, in any case, is an existential one. What you, the performer, provide as much as the world in following up your breakthrough is meant to each guarantee everybody simply how a lot you haven’t modified as a lot as, nicely, how a lot you even have. For Zefanya, as a 23-year-old Indonesian artist and producer breaking floor all over the place from Coachella to Marvel, whose dreamy R&B lilts have successfully made her patron saint of all unhappy Asian diaspora girlies at massive, Nicole tackles such double-edged expectations by way of flashback—thematically and actually—to her days as a teenage YouTuber.
“I bear in mind considering simply deleting them,” Zefanya tells me of the movies she used to put up of herself singing as @nzee24, again when she was rising up in Jakarta and writing her first songs about falling out and in of younger love. “I used to be like…who cares? No person will miss them or know.” There got here a pivotal second in 2017, proper when her profession first took off: She’d simply left Lipscomb College after two semesters so as to signal with the up-and-coming Asian hip-hop label 88rising, and the need to rebrand as Niki, the R&B artist, meant presumably relegating Nicole, the baby-faced 15-year-old whose video of a “Keep Keep Keep” cowl received a contest to open for Taylor Swift’s Crimson Tour cease in Jakarta, to web historical past. Or so she thought. Amid the pandemic quietude—and inspiration from Swift’s personal revisitation of Fearless and Crimson final yr—Zefanya discovered herself gravitating to these outdated movies with the belief that she too now had the power to render her formative work in its fullest kind.
The tip outcome, launched this month, is Nicole, a sonic time capsule of a breakup album that explores heartache in maybe its most devastating kind: initially bottled within the prime of adolescence, now remastered by way of Zefanya’s grown-up chops as author, musician, and producer. It’s half new materials, half @nzee24 classics refurbished from the YouTube vault, devoted to parsing the expertise of rising up in a sure place and time (“Excessive College in Jakarta,” “Milk Enamel,” “Fb Buddies”), significantly concerning one monumental highschool break up that Zefanya has no real interest in being coy about. “It’s completely about my old flame and my first heartbreak and all the things in between,” she says—with ease. The roughly six-year margin between stated occasions and Nicole however, Zefanya says that she discovered the method of transforming her teenage materials to be, frankly, enjoyable: “It appears like basking each in nostalgia and maturity on the similar time.”
Barely much less enjoyable, she admits, was scoring and starring in But I’m Letting Go, the 30-minute quick movie she made to accompany the album with director Isaac Ravishankara. The All Too Nicely–esque challenge turned what may need been a manageable audio-based train in flashback into an excruciating cinematic remedy probably eligible for no matter performance-art award any human ought to get in trade for actually reenacting their first large breakup. “Capturing was undoubtedly the curler coaster of ‘what the fuck?’” she says. “It felt like I had performed this earlier than and I used to be reliving it, however not?”
Over panzanella and a hilariously massive keto platter, we hypothesize how her viewers, probably accustomed to Zefanya’s bouncier R&B repertoire, will take to the brand new report, particularly reside. “I simply really feel like we’re all going to be unhappy and emotional collectively, which appears like a ball,” she laughs. Earlier than jetting off on her first—almost sold-out—headlining solo North American tour this fall, Zefanya had been scheduled for a prime slot on this weekend’s Head within the Clouds competition in Pasadena, 88rising’s SoCal Asian mecca, for the uninitiated, and adopted dwelling turf for Zefanya, for the second yr working. On Tuesday evening, nevertheless, Zefanya introduced on Instagram that she had examined optimistic for COVID and wouldn’t be capable to carry out. She assured followers that Head within the Clouds Asia, together with a cease in her precise hometown, Jakarta, was nonetheless on.