The world of dark emo electro-pop has found its way into the mainstream within the past couple of years. The likes of The Weeknd and Billie Eilish have pushed it to be programmed in multiple radio formats, along with the top of streaming charts. The artists in this space have repeatedly toyed with the concept of genre and blended many different influences.
One of the genre’s pioneers, Banks, has returned with an album that both boldly declares her identity and pushes further on the boundaries of genre.
The California native, nee Jillian Banks, released her debut album “Goddess” in 2014 through Harvest Records. Since then, her tracks have been placed in multiple TV shows (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Girls,” “Power”), and she has toured sold-out shows around the world.
The new album, entitled “III,” finds Banks pulling new tricks out of her hat and improving upon some fan favorites.
The opening track, “Till Now,” starts with one of Banks’ signature chants. The song unfolds around this chant, processing it through more and more filters and harmonies. It creates the bed of the song for the first minute and a half before the rest of the synths and percussion breaks in. The song is a raw proclamation: the bulls–t ends now. Banks’ vocals build from a head voice whisper to a guttural yell as the track closes. It’s a powerful way to open the album.
“III” was lead by two distinct singles, “Gimme” and “Look What You’re Doing to Me.” Each song could lead you to believe that Banks was taking this album in a different direction than her past work. “Gimme” is probably one of the strongest songs to be released this year. It has a vision, and that vision runs through every part of the song. It’s an empowerment bop that presents Banks as more sure of herself than she was on any of her previous tracks.
“Look What You’re Doing to Me” is a very very different song. It has chaotic production meant to capture the frazzled feeling of being smitten with someone. While this is not necessarily new territory for Banks, there is a sense of optimism in this song that is fresh for her. Notably it is also the first collaboration on any of her albums (though not her first collaboration overall — see her work with 6lack and the amazing track “Wolfpack” with Tala).
“Hawaiian Mazes” and “Sawzall” reveal a similar sense of optimism. These tracks feel like new a whole new dimension of Banks’ music and perhaps her own character. In the music, there is a deeper sense of innocence and forgiveness. It’s like she has found room for the shades of gray between the black and white judgement in her previous albums.
On her sophomore album “The Altar,” Banks introduced her take on rap with the seething takedown “Trainwreck.” On “III,” she decides to go for it full send and spits bars on two later tracks, “Alaska” and “The Fall.” While it could come off as catering to the mainstream, Banks keeps her raps decidedly off-kilter, syncopated and weird. The raps hit their mark even when you are expecting them to run off the rails. These are two standout tracks on the project for sure.
While much of the album is exploring new elements, there are some more traditional Banks tracks as well. “Contaminated” and “Stroke” are quintessential Banks songs sure to be warmly welcomed by day one fans. Similarly, “Godless” and “Propaganda” feel solidly within the space Banks has created for herself over the course of her career. But on these two tracks, her voice sits higher in the mix, and her delivery is more forward than usual. It puts an extra oomph in these songs and makes the desperation in the lyrics rip through, giving the songs an added sense of exposure.
“III” closes with two ballads that really showcase Banks lyrical wit and vulnerability. The songs are so specific and prescriptive with their words but still remain applicable and relatable to the thousands of listeners beyond her.
One of her strengths is her abstract metaphorical lyricism. Maybe abstract isn’t even the right word to describe it — perhaps a word like innovative or unconventional better describes it. Still, when she sings a phrase like “If we were made of water / maybe we could swim around it,” you may not know exactly what she means, but you know exactly how it feels.
Though these songs focus on the vulnerable writing, they still have distinct sonic production. “If We Were Made of Water” samples rainfall and bird calls taking the song to a dream pop realm. The tender closer, “What About Love,” goes a more cinematic route building on strings and spoken samples.
“III” is an amazing album and step forward for an artist truly operating within her own space in music. It is her most declarative work yet, and it covers a breadth of themes, soundscapes and emotions. Give it, give it what it wants, what it deserves: a listen.