Music Review: Empathy EP By Jane Deaux
The Chicago rapper and singer makes a name for herself with an airy, flexible voice that flows effortlessly between the sensuous and the sorrowful.
Almost a decade ago, Jean Deaux met Saba and his brother Joseph Chilliams at a youth open-mic event. Since then, the rapper/singer born Zoi Harris has become one of the most versatile features in and beyond Chicago hip-hop. Early in her career, she landed collaborations with UK psych-pop band Glass Animals and London electro-soul singer Sampha. And though she’s regularly self-released projects on SoundCloud, Deaux is perhaps best known by association with her impressive list of collaborators: Saba, Mykki Blanco, Kehlani. With last October’s Krash EP, she began working to make a name for herself—building an identity around her airy, flexible voice and affinity for weightless house-hop beats. On her new EP, Empathy, she raps with restraint, revealing a glimpse into a wide inner landscape.
Throughout Empathy, Deaux’s soft vocals emulate sweet-toned greats like Janet Jackson and Brandy. On the Kehlani-featuring standout “Anytime,” her voice smolders as she outlines her plans for a certain someone: “Call me anytime you wanna get it/I could have it crackin’ for you,” she sings, before jumping into a high-pitched falsetto that aligns her with funk-inspired vocalists like Childish Gambino or Smino. Though her voice rarely rises above a whisper, she flows effortlessly between the sensuous and the sorrowful. On the EP’s final track, “Speakerphone (Trust Issues),” she raps vaguely about someone who’s left, her scattered language suggesting an emotional stand-off. “I know you planning to tell a lie/I wear my power, you see it on,” she raps, her tenderness now evoking dejection and betrayal.
She shares the talent for emotional pivots with fellow Chicago rapper Tink, who writes about relationships with gripping melodrama. But Deaux’s spoken-word poetry background shines through with songs that decline to follow a concrete storyline. “Henny straight, wanna taste mine?/Lil’ baby gon call me up, he wanna FaceTime/I tippy toe’d out the party, mami gon’ make time,” she raps on “Break Time,” flashing a staccato string of images rather than methodically setting a scene. This impressionistic songwriting can feel slippery; it’s hard to know exactly what she’s rapping about or why she feels a certain way. At the same time, the open-endedness creates intrigue. “Life Lines” conjures a scene so arresting it doesn’t need a backstory: “I can’t read your damn mind/But when I hold your hand/I can see your... life lines,” she sings, dragging out the notes.
“Life Lines” ends with a recording of Deaux discussing the concept of empathy with Bari, another Chicago rapper and close collaborator. “Instead of reacting or taking something personal,” she explains, “be like, ‘Damn, you probably going through some shit.’” Perhaps it’s only natural for a skilled and evocative performer to be fascinated by emotional awareness. Yet Deaux’s reluctance to spell out the details of a situation creates distance within her songs, a slight fog that protects her from full transparency. Ultimately, empathy is what she asks of her audience. When you listen to her words closely and begin to recognize their subtleties, Empathy is her most layered and sumptuous project yet.