Chapters is the third album in Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna’s international discography, and comes after 2013’s highly appraised Nocturnal. Yuna has had a long road to this point: in the past five years, she has released three albums and two EPs internationally, following a previous five years as an independent artist in Malaysia, all whilst writing new music which would spread like wildfire online (she received over 1 million plays on MySpace).
In 2008, she received five Anugerah Industri Muzik nominations, where she won four trophies, including ‘Best New Artist’ – only two years after performing to a live audience for her first time. Since 2011, her success has come internationally, working with the Fader label between 2011 and 2012, and more recently, with Verve Records and Universal Music since 2013, performing live with the likes of Childish Gambino and Florence + The Machine, with cosigns from MTV, Billboard and NPR, among others.
While 2013’s Nocturnal was a pleasant, upbeat affair, Chapters is a very different experience. A lot of the tracks here are brutally personal and honest, with Yuna delving into her approach to relationships, romantics and overcoming heartbreak.
We find Yuna weaving a tale of finding love, and then having that person totally crushing her and her ideals in a relationship, with this album being her testament to understanding and evolving as a person, with a lot of cautionary advice for her listeners. That being said, this album has pleasant highlights, including the very cheeky “Crush”, featuring industry superstar Usher.
Chapters opens up with the very lush sounding “Mannequin”, a perfect example of Yuna getting the very emotional aesthetic of this album nailed down. Lots of slow moving melodies and powerful basslines alongside her almost wailing, passionate vocal performance, not unlike the style of someone like FKA Twigs.
The lyrics here show a very vulnerable Yuna, with lines like “I don’t know what it means to feel whole, you’re next to me, but I feel so cold with you“, highlighting the tension between lovers with a wealth of metaphorical ideas. It’s worth noting the first introduction Yuna gives us is very submissive, and we get to see this change and develop as the album progresses.
The next track is “Lanes“, a much less passive, heated track where we find Yuna acknowledging the difference between her and her partner – “I’m gettin’ tired of your lies and your excuses, cause I see your photos in the club havin’ fun and litted up” is a particularly relevant line that is a whole lot of relatable in the modern world.
The instrumentation on this track is a lot bubblier than “Mannequin”, and gives the song a much freer sound, with fast paced hi-hats, chiming piano sections and layered vocal sections. The song closes out with the almost anthemic “If you got a good girl then appreciate it, a wife-material then appreciate it“, a sentiment well vocalized in this album.
“Crush” follows that track, a much calmer, laid back track featuring R&B star Usher, the first of two features on the album. The lyrics are a lot more listener-friendly with Yuna playing the cutesy, uncertain girl and Usher singing promises of proving other men wrong and to be the best she’s ever had. They have a little duet segment that really comes across as chemistry between the singers as a duo, Usher’s parts provide a solid counter melody to Yuna’s chants of “La la la, down down down“.
The beat on this track is really gentle and deconstructed, starting out with a really soft percussion and quiet guitar rhythms. The track holds as a relaxing testament to the idea that no matter how heartbroken you can be, something else can always come along, something I think Yuna shows off well here.
From here, we have a variety of tracks that show off Yuna’s ability to tell the story of heartbreak, and we also have tracks that show a much happier woman singing about different topics. I think the biggest flaw this album has is running the story of heartbreak too many times under the guise of different metaphorical ideas. Tracks like “Unrequited Love“, “Too Close” and “Used To Love You” occasionally feel a bit too familiar, with beats that feel very non-descript in some areas, and a lot of just absolutely soul crushing lyrics about being afraid and being hurt.
“But you don’t seem to want forever” and “but I’m scared of something new, this heartbeat tricking me into wanting to fall in love with you” are some example of Yuna’s really gloomy feelings. Not to say that they are of any less importance, but I think that personally this would have been an excellent opportunity for Yuna to experiment with a different sound and approach to her quite formulaic song writing style, which starts to feel a little bit stale by the time you get to tracks like “Too Close”.
A perfect example of Yuna breaking this cycle to make a genuinely interesting track is with the track “All I Do”, where we have Yuna pouring her soul over her piano in my favourite track on Chapters. This track is totally stripped back, emotional and passionate with a seriously accurate depiction of being heartbroken and depressed, reminiscent of something like a Sam Smith track.
A lot of the more upbeat track on Chapters are the highlights in my opinion, “Best Love” twists Yuna’s formula to make a funky track that feels like a throwback love letter to 90’s R&B that doesn’t come across as being contrived or derivative, and has a super sweet, catchy hook that manages to maintain Yuna’s constant, super chilled sound.
“Best Of Me” has some of the best ideas on the album, with loud, thumping synths, and features Yuna putting on her best Beyoncé impression, with a vocal performance that puts her independence and solidarity at the forefront, standing to teach anyone who has ever been in her position that better times will always come.
Overall, Yuna has come out with a strong album that features a lot of ideas, but expands on them in a lot of different directions – think about the past, future and present of heartbreak. She also makes good use of her features, Usher is solid and Jhene Aiko fits in perfectly alongside an artist that makes such a similar style of music.
Fans of R&B and music that is seriously relatable when it comes to romance, learning from your past and looking at the world in a different way will enjoy Chapters. Out now on Verve Records/Universal Music, purchase Yuna’s Chapters on iTunes here.
Words by Sam Seaton