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Intrusive thoughts and mixmaster madness in Liv.e's 'Girl in the Half Pearl'

Liv.e's turntablist approach warps the listener's sense of reality, letting reveries and hypotheticals bleed into the horizon without interrupting the perception of time and space.
Photo by qlick
Liv.e's turntablist approach warps the listener's sense of reality, letting reveries and hypotheticals bleed into the horizon without interrupting the perception of time and space.

Liv.e's Girl in the Half Pearl creates space for the voices inside your head — letting them float around, talk to each other and scream into the abyss. Some sweetly whisper messages of prosperity while others shriek without warning. Her acclaimed, shape-shifting 2020 debut, Couldn't Wait to Tell You, emulated a series of journal entries, brought to life by amorphous, gliding harmonies and dissolving melodies. The vocalist's sophomore album prioritizes chaos, pulling elements broadly from jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul and dance music to encapsulate the multiplicity of growth and the messiness that comes with it.

Since Liv.e's earliest projects, the 2017 debut EP, FRANK, or 2018's 10.4 ROG-produced ::hoopdreams::, the Dallas-born, LA-based artist has wielded her voice to create shapes that are textured, but not defined, by the beats around them. And over the years, those shapes have only become more complex, gaining lines and pointed edges. Girl in the Half Pearl is her most experimental project yet, which is saying something of this probing artist. While Couldn't Wait to Tell You paired her whimsical tone with woozy jazz loops and lo-fi hip-hop samples, Girl in the Half Pearl is more concerned with juxtaposition. The album finds harmony in its mess of influences as Liv.e taps into her inclinations as a DJ — a mixing art that seeks to find congruence where there seemingly isn't any. Liv.e began DJing in high school with Dallas-based Dolfin Records, eventually uploading sets to SoundCloud. Listening to her mixes from more than eight years ago, it's clear that she has always been a master of the seamless transition — whether it's slowing down a Madlib-produced beat to sharply land on Knxwledge's more buoyant ones or pairing Jordan Rakei's "Chris Dave + Bob Marley" with Fugees' "How Many Mics." It's no coincidence that much of the album is produced by Los Angeles-based beatmaker Mndsgn, who was a presence in Liv.e's early mixes.

At first listen, Girl in the Half Pearl seems to be spontaneously constructed, but it is actually a carefully controlled work. Liv.e developed the album's fluid yet smooth artistic shifts during a 2022 residency at Laylow in London, where she experimented with live performance, the shuffling interconnectivity of a setlist. The best shows feel like they are being performed for the very first time — they are singular and mind-altering — but that impression is often only produced by meticulous rehearsal. The album has that feel: so practiced it feels natural, so natural it feels unforced. It brings about a sort of dreamscape. Liv.e's turntablist approach warps the listener's sense of reality, letting reveries and hypotheticals bleed into the horizon without interrupting the perception of time and space. "A Slumber Party?" opens with a sheepish voicemail from a lover asking Liv.e if she wants to sleepover, rendered against a backdrop of phone dial sounds and answering machine beeps played like rippling synths. The rest of the jazzy track imagines the consequences of accepting a seemingly trivial invitation, as the artist coyly sings, "I know she ain't my girlfriend / it don't matter I'll still please her / she only come after 9 p.m.," weaving airy harmonies through its downtempo beat.

The DJ booth, and, to a greater extent, club music, often acts as a vehicle for liberation, and on Girl in the Half Pearl, Liv.e questions what that journey looks like for her personally. "When I looked inside myself / I found there was no one to help / Guess I'll find my super power / Light by fire in the darkest hour," she breathlessly sings over fast-paced jungle beats on "Gardetto," the album's opening track. Its final minute is driven solely by the rhythms themselves, as if nodding to a dance floor that many artists, from PinkPantheress to Beyoncé, have gravitated toward during the pandemic reawakening. Liv.e's focus on play, and motion, is what gives the project an optimism, even during its darkest moments. On "Ghost," her vocals sound like they're being projected through a megaphone, a distortion effect that adds a layer of desperation. In the song's pleading lyrics, she seems trapped at a middle distance as she sings of separation: "I stayed awake 'til dawn / I felt that shit inside me / That you were really gone." She alters her voice as if changing hats, roleplaying characters in her inner monologue as they infiltrate not only her mind but her feelings.

Liv.e told Rolling Stone she wanted to make an album that feels like you're on drugs — reflecting what she longed for as she went through her breakup, amongst other things, last summer. Taking psychedelics can't change the inevitable, but it might change your proximity to it. Club music and psychedelics have a long, intertwined history, and there is an increasing interest — from artists and academics — in the intersection between psychedelic therapy and music. On Girl in the Half Pearl, Liv.e attempts to tap into a drug-fueled club night, one that can help you get out of your own head or cause you to dig an even deeper hole for yourself. It isn't all dance music, per se, but even at its stillest it carries the allure of an atmospheric, epiphany-inducing set. On the strobing "Find Out," which is nearly rhythmless, she contemplates a relationship at its end. But as she sings, "Cryin spillin tears into the late night / There's more than 50 ways to leave your lover," her swoons feel more peaceful than sad; acceptance and grief can go hand-in-hand. Taking psychedelics can also be its own momentary escape, and some Mndsgn-produced tracks like "Lake Psilocybin" and "Underground" provide those same comforts, zapping the listener into space or a Super Mario-like experience hopping on bouncy mushrooms, forcing them to surrender to their inhibitions.

Much like its predecessor, Girl in the Half Pearl also riffs on themes of romance. Falling in love, being in love, experiencing heartbreak and questioning it all are among the most intimate windows into oneself — putting us face-to-face with our most sincere doubts and fears and that which makes us feel understood. "Sorry if it came off insecure / I'm learning to love myself," she whispers on "Snowing!," echoing through a stuttering, synth-infused melody. What some might consider a breakup album is actually a story about reinvention; their thematic proximity is the point. Instead of trying to put your subconscious inner dialogue to rest, Girl in the Half Pearl demands that you hear what it has to say. Liv.e's meditative concoction of sounds, which pull from many genres but can never be attributed to one in particular, like many great mixes, reveal the ways that growth and disorientation oscillate between each other like a pendulum. You just have to be ready to swing the other way.

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Teresa Xie
Teresa Xie is a reporter who specializes in media and culture writing. She recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied political science and cinema. Outside of NPR, her work can be found in Pitchfork, Vox, Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, Stereogum and other outlets.