Lolo Zouaï’s viral hit “Desert Rose” was a lament for her family, framed in the cultures that raised her. Born to an Algerian father and French mother, the San Francisco-raised singer used English, French, and Arabic to cover the spectrum of emotions that arose when she was banned from attending a family wedding in Algeria. The most subdued track from her laid-back, confident debut, 2019’s High Highs to Low Lows, “Desert Rose” was not just a plaintive cry but also a gentle nudge to reclaim a more assertive and freeing narrative of her life. “Everyday I’m still having to push my boundaries,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “I still feel like a prude sometimes… All of it has just made me want to make happier music now.”
Zouaï’s second album, PLAYGIRL, is a bold attempt at lightening up, centering her dominance and playful swagger even in its weaker moments. Whereas on High Highs to Low Lows she seemed contained to brief, controlled passions, PLAYGIRL flirts openly with relinquishing command: “There’s something about me falling apart/That makes it so easy to sleep in your arms,” she coos in the sinister bounce of “Give Me a Kiss.” With producer Stelios Phili, Zouaï elevates her debut’s screwy trap-pop sound into glitchy hyperpop. On “pl4yg1rl,” she pitches up and interpolates her Bay Area rap idol Too $hort’s “pimpandho.com,” flipping his description of the “dot com whore” into a cyber-dominatrix ruling the metaverse. “You deserve some fun,” she sings, swinging from a coquettish purr to an authoritative demand: “Get your headphones/Lock up the bedroom door/Log on.” Zouaï’s delicate, airy vocals frequently appear in layers of harmony and vocal processors, reverberating within a digital playground that whirls with synths and crackling drum machines. With Phili’s production, they add to a crowded, disorienting state of unreality.
PLAYGIRL is branded as a concept album set in the far off cyber-future, with the music divided into three distinct personas: the flirtatious “Playgirl,” the softer “Dreamgirl,” and the darker “Partygirl.” The album shines when Zouaï is playing and partying, like in the funky, whimsical, “Picking Berries,” a romp in “the south of France” that moves as an extended, breathy sigh. The intoxicating, candy-coated “Gummy Bear” is another highlight, juxtaposing Zouaï’s honeyed speaking voice with floating melodic runs that echo the free-flowing improvisation found in Algerian raï, the anti-fundamentalist and often overtly sexual popular music that formed under French colonial rule.
It’s unclear, however, where exactly each alter-ego falls in the tracklist. PLAYGIRL isn’t as dynamic as it needs to be to make those distinctions clear. The back half in particular, with its slew of reductive acoustic ballads and bland R&B crooners, can feel like abruptly taking off your VR headset. These are welcome breathers amid PLAYGIRL’s hyper-digital overload, but Zouaï isn’t comfortable when she tries to add more power to her voice, making tracks like “Open the Door” sound more like throwaway Kehlani demos.
When Zouaï takes the edge off her vocals, the music eases up with her. The slow-building “Skin & Bones” acts like a successor to “High Highs to Low Lows”—the single that kick-started her career—with its frank discussion of depression and the downsides of the industry success she sought for so long. “Holding back tears during my shows,” she reflects with a softness that situates those struggles firmly in the past. “I’m done living in my head,” she sings in the bridge, repeating the phrase through drifting echoes, then centering her voice in vocal runs that crescendo with ease. These feathery touches are Zouaï at her best. When she’s able to riff and improvise, she sounds as though her voice is fluttering toward happier moments, spiraling upward and evaporating into a whisper.