Dark-Pop Songstress Rotana's New EP is a Stripped-Back Soul-Barer
Pop songstress Rotana doesn't play by the rules. That's not some big statement of rebellion from growing up in Saudi Arabia -- it's just a testament to the kind of badass she is. At 21, she was en route to climbing the ranks to an executive position at an oil company back home, but in 2013, she went viral for a Lorde cover designed to advocate for Saudi women's rights. A couple years ago, she scored a Master's degree in communications over in Los Angeles. Today, and every day, she chooses music.
Born in a world that told her she couldn't take up space, Rotana grew up to fill it. Loud and hungry to create, she makes no apologies for showing up and being seen. The impact of this attention to herself (her body, her mind, her sexuality, her emotion) is directly replicated in her music. Baring her soul in sultry dark-pop anthems, Rotana tells her story and dares us to listen. Today, Rotana has released her new EP, Demo Love Series, a remarkably masterful collection of pop talent at its highest caliber.
We asked Rotana to tell us a little about the series and here's what she had to say:
This time, the statement Rotana makes, put simply, is that love is a battlefield and we're all at war in it every goddamn day. There are no wild epiphanies or punchy call-to-actions here -- there are just five slightly disjointed and marvelously bare-bones songs about heart struggles, five mesmeric gems about heartbreak and self-sabotage, the things we know best whether we like it or not. Rotana captures these themes so desperately, urgently, like her life depends on it, and it sort of does. These are the things that make us human. If we don't share them, or more accurately drown in them, who are we?
The Demo Love Series opens with "bad weather," one of the standout tracks in terms of vocal skill and versatility. It's our first introduction to Rotana's pipes (which have matured and smoothed since her 2013 breakout), first a breathy wisp then a steady purr then a high-powered wail, all these different tones and levels of force that weave in and out of each other while an arrangement of quick snaps and slaps of percussion move beneath, gaining synth slithers and bass blooms throughout the track. On "in the morning," a bittersweet acoustic guitar strums a sad rhythm line before Rotana's aching vocals come in singing clipped, matter-of-fact, but somehow gut-punch, lines like "you're the storm that I choose." There's little to no production here, just that acoustic and a rush of vocal harmony contributing to a really gorgeous effort in which Rotana bravely delivers a fleeting love song.
On "crime," there's a divide between the lyrics and the arrangement. The hook is a confident deadpan -- "if we don't give a fuck, is that really such a crime?" -- but you'd think it was a heartbreaker the way Rotana administers it, airily and resignedly over a bed of sharp acoustic strums. "side effects" is next, a sexy dark-pop crawl featuring Rotana's best vocals (a shocking blend of Selena Gomez' sultry wisp and Sia's emotive bellow, heard again in the track that follows). Synth undulations and fizzy percussion make up the arrangement, growing with a slick club beat then standing down for the vocals to shine. The Demo Love Series ends with "loud love," yet another standout if we can claim such a thing when the whole record is full of them. Waves of warbling electronic treatment and a rich soundscape bloom endlessly below those powerhouse vocals ricocheting off the track's murky percussion, a passionate R&B-tinged anthem bound to be a chart-topper.
Abandoning the confining rules and tools for expert production, Rotana instead embraces her own autonomy, opting to languish in the freedom of stripped-down sonic truth. The result is her Demo Love Series, dripping in an untamed sensuality and built on talent (of the vocal and instrumental variety) and passion (of the heart variety) that can't -- and won't -- be wrangled. We won't box Rotana in. The way she breaks down barriers and extracts soul-baring sincerity is a gift -- we'll treat it as such.
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Featured photo of Rotana by Topher Shrigley.