Last year’s Head In The Clouds II was 88rising’s misguided attempt at catering a wider market by dabbling in global pop trends; in the process, ripping away the individuality that made each of its artists’ solo work great. However, the one bright spot on that album was NIKI – who managed to keep the sound that made her own work great while being able to compromise on the superficial party music of the compilation.
Splitting its 10 tracks into 3 acts, MOONCHILD is a concept album that details the journey of Moonchild’s self-discovery, doubling as a parallel story on both the character and NIKI’s own self-acceptance.
Kicking things off with “Wide Open (Foreword)”, the song has a slow synth and orchestral buildup that heavily reminds me of label-mate Rich Brian’s The Sailor; which isn’t a surprise since New York producer and Kendrick Lamar collaborator – Bēkon, has major production credits on both records. Though “Wide Open” is great at setting a sombre atmosphere, its interlude-like structure makes it a forgettable intro that only works at easing listeners into the actual MOONCHILD experience.
“Tide”, which serves as the opener to Act II, suffers from a similar problem too. The bass and distortion-heavy track proudly wears its Billie Eilish and Jessie Reyez inspirations on its sleeve, but again, the interlude-like structure barely leaves an impression after multiple listens. Fortunately, all of the 8 remaining tracks are some of the best work in NIKI’s career so far.
Lead single “Switchblade”, which comes after “Wide Open”, instead feels like the actual first track of the album and is a stellar introduction to MOONCHILD with its synth-heavy instrumental. There’s also a touch of glitch pop influence on the song that complements NIKI’s breathy vocal deliveries surprisingly well. The tiny details in the production save her processed vocals from sounding hollow while adding a sprinkle of synthetic ‘personality’ throughout.
It’s a bit of a shame that the album never revisits this sound down the rest of the tracklist, but again like on Head in the Clouds II, NIKI’s delve into contemporary pop and R&B trends on these tracks are wonderfully executed. “Nightcrawlers” is an upbeat R&B tune that’s reminiscent to her brilliant (and also best song of her career so far) “lowkey”. The sudden tonal shift by the end with a standalone rap verse is also a strong showcase of NIKI’s versatility and command over her vocal performances.
2nd single “Selene” is another energetic track with a grooving bass line, making it the funkiest (and also sexiest) song on MOONCHILD. It also marks the end of Act I, where the project proceeds to shy away from the more bombastic sounds in favour of slower ballads.
“Pandemonium” and “If There’s Nothing Left…” sees NIKI own cruise control – singing warmly over toned-down R&B production. Both solid tracks that don’t really have much to write home about. Still, they’re enjoyable nonetheless. On the other hand, “Lose” is where NIKI really flexes her vocal capabilities.
With Bēkon on the piano, she croons about letting go of an irreparable relationship (with the moon, according to the narrative). Reportedly recorded in one take, the song is the climax of MOONCHILD; a heartfelt performance that’s perfectly sandwiched between the track list. I’m glad that it’s only powerful ballad on here too, leaving “Lose” enough breathing room to really stun listeners.
“Plot Twist” is my favourite song off the album. The only full blown pop track on MOONCHILD, it’s a prime showcase for how charismatic NIKI can sound. It’s a good mix of the upbeat sounds of Act I and sombre tones of Act II; making it a song that feels representative of where both Moonchild and NIKI stand in their journey after finally accepting themselves for who they (and the people around them) are.
Finally, we wrap up with the hopeful guitar-backed “Drive On”, which is also another uneventful yet still pleasant slow jam. It’s a nice palette cleanser to end things off.
In terms of solo albums, MOONCHILD is easily my favourite 88rising project so far. It plays to all of NIKI’s strengths while also proving she has the vision to craft a thematically cohesive and sonically impressive record. My only gripe with it is, again, its length. At only 34 minutes, having 2 songs that sound like structure-less interludes is a bit of a bummer, though every other track does manage to pull their respective weights to varying degrees of success.