Text Alfonso Gomez
Joy > Woe
Emir Hermono has credited his relationship status – consequently, his emotional state – for his productivity in the last couple of years, as well as the quality of his output during that period. Looking back at the two beat tapes he had released previously – first of breakups, then of the want for new love – and what the Malaysia-based Papuan beatsmith had informed us, not to mention the cliché that artists create their best work forlorn, the prospect of his first full-length record living up to its prequels were unfortunately worrisome despite being personally blissful for him; Emir is now engaged and inspired by his newfound love.
Well, Karma Kisses is in actuality Emir’s best work to date, effectively rendering the un-romantic notion that misery make for better art a moot point at best. Ergo, when he declared that “sadness brings out more emotions” in relation to his music, Emir might have misconstrued woe as the only potent feeling that can be exuded from art, leaving us to believe that Karma Kisses would be as maudlin as its predecessors – but disingenuously maudlin considering his happy engagement. This turns out to be patently untrue; the long-play is still very much in the languorous vein of its musical genome (Ta-ku and his Soulection ilk), a series constant, but the mood is decidedly contented. No, not the saccharine, heart-eyed emojis of young love, instead the long stroll with a very significant other through the neon pink dusk-lit beach.
This mood is set from the first few seconds of opener ‘SUMDIMSUM’ – the beat reversed as an intro, creating an ambient piece that would fool the uninitiated into thinking this were something entirely different than an r’n’b- and hip hop-informed release. And continued on with the rest of the SUM-titled trilogy, ‘SUM12HOLD (feat. Shelhiel)’ and ‘SUM12LUV’, all equally unhurried in their pacing; there’s no rush for a climax, even when the former goes full-Shelhiel midway and towards the end, both times they’re thankfully dialled back to its original echo-y trap’n’b tempo à la The Weeknd. And yes, Shelhiel sings in Abel’s substance-induced register quite well – perhaps the best he’s sounded singing in English.
Shelhiel isn’t the only guest feature to try his hand in the genre; album highlight ‘Tersengat’ makes a strong case for Leo Ari as an r’n’b act, and with his similar background in the arts, one could imagine him as an Autre Ne Veut-like figure. While Leo has always been fond of pop – debut EP Love Must Be Real is one of the best left-leaning pop records we heard locally – here, with Emir’s unapologetic pop r’n’b production and Leo’s old school Malay inflection and predilection for vocal processors, ‘Tersengat’ is given an airy feel that’s reminiscent of Malay pop-r’n’b groups of yore (think 4U2C, Feminin, etc.). The subject matter adds to the feeling too; a bit contrarian to Emir’s intention for Karma Kisses, Leo warns listeners to not be subjected to the wily ways of womenfolk (yep, he went full-on early ‘90s lite-sexism).
The last vocal feature – and closing track – sees Emir venturing out of the old school and into the Jeremih territory of rap-r’n’b courtesy of Zimbabwean Jonah Sithole. Revisiting the same beat as ‘SUMDIMSUM’, ‘Feels’ is the long-play going full-circle, appropriately ending the conceptual nature of Emir’s love trilogy with closure – as Jonah sings, “Take a sit back and look at all the good things that came from the bad.” But the features on Karma Kisses aren’t limited to vocal contributions, ‘Soul’ has 19-year-old f r s adding his classical-informed melody to the production. With seagulls and the calming sounds of the waves slowly making its way into the beat, it’s seemingly the inspiration behind the record’s cover art – fitting, as this too is another album highlight.
Though this assessment could read like Emir is at his best when working with others (be it via production or vocal input), he fares well enough on his own. ‘With Me’ – with its future bass drum beat crescendo, saccharine keys, and all – still works incredibly well as an r’n’b song on its own without any guest vocalising on it, utilising only a pitch shifted up sample singing “You’re with me” instead. ‘Masih Sendiri’ is a throwback to late ‘80s, early ‘90s Indonesian pop; Mus Mujiono by way of the beat gen, if you will. Unfortunately, Emir can be too reliant on genre tropes that do on occasions make him sound like a one-trick pony – the biggest offender being the overuse of crackles. While conceptually sensible to give the illusion of a beat tape – its history is in DIY cassette releases, go figure – Karma Kisses is meant to be the culmination of his previous releases into a full-fledged record, the crackling noises here only distract. But perhaps cohesion overrules that slight; this album is Emir’s perfect ending regardless.