Though Rouge resembles much of its contemporaries, Yuna presents a fresh lens through which these sounds are expressed.
Album artwork never really makes or breaks a project, but aesthetically pleasing or innovative designs can enhance a listen. When it comes to consistently pleasant album art, Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai, otherwise known as Yuna, almost always delivers. There’s the blue and pink scarf against the seafoam backdrop of her self-titled debut or the camo-kaleidoscope of Chapters. On her latest,Rouge, she looks titanic, the ruffles of her dress acting as focal points leading the viewer up to her face. The consistency of her album covers matches their contents, all understated and warm slices of R&B which fit perfectly into the sounds of the 2010s. The latest album puts a little kick into the tempo and brings in a diverse collection of featured talents, but like its cover, Rouge features Yuna as its focal point.
From the opening strings of “Castaway,” producer Robin Hannibal becomes evident; it begins almost exactly Quadron’s “Avalanche.” In the past, he contributed a handful of songs to her projects; here he produced all but two. Rouge sees him acting more like Kaytranada at moments, creating propulsive but understated funk ideal for Yuna’s soft voice. She wisps along these tracks while keeping her calm, whether delivering hard news on “Blank Marquee,” keeping her spirits up on “Forevermore” or calling out a rallying cry on the Little Simz-assisted “Pink Youth.” Even when inquiring about her ex’s new lover on “Does She,” the chanteuse maintains a steady groove, more contemptuously curious than actually upset.
That said, a bit of unbridled anguish or rage could add a little extra fire to Rouge. Yuna’s strength as a vocalist, her soft control, takes away much needed force on “(Not) The Love of My Life.” When the compositions become unremarkable as on “Forget About You,” the lack of weight to her voice sinks them further into the background. On a positive note, this softness allows her to blend seamlessly with Masego on “Amy,” a nostalgic daydream for past friendship.
Though Rouge sonically resembles much of its contemporaries, especially someone like Goldlink, Yuna presents a fresh lens through which these sounds are expressed. Few other major acts sing about the public’s reaction to their headscarf (“Likes”) or in Malay (“Tiada Akhir”).
Nevertheless, lyrics such as those of “Teenage Heartbreak” (“Teenage heartbreak/ It’s a classic mistake”) rely too much on tropes, one of a few instances that prevents the album from soaring instead of gliding.
When “Forget About You” came on in a friend’s car over this past weekend, they remarked, “Oh, I’ve heard this before!” This was not the case, but their familiarity with this song, albeit a pleasant one, tells you a lot about Rouge. Artistically, it’s pretty standard, but Yuna herself elevates it just enough, not reinventing the wheel so much as keeping it spinning smoothly.