The mere title Tears in the Club is a neat inversion of a lyrical theme that runs through quite a lot of hip-hop and electronic music, though it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. Think about what it means for us to be confirmed as subjects by being decentred by — and then internalizing the gaze of — the Other, a phenomenon encapsulated in the lyrics of will.i.am and Britney Spears’s 2012 hit “Scream & Shout”: “When we up in the club/ All eyes on us.” The gaze here seems to come from everywhere (all eyes on us), but it’s ambiguous because it is at the same time envious (as if there’s something about us that makes us the deserving targets) and hostile (which makes living up to these expectations impossible). Inside all of this is the horrifying idea that we should always be watching ourselves (all eyes on us includes our eyes on us), ensuring our bodies are toned, our strut confident, our moves hot, to get a verdict of approval that will always be cruelly denied us.
Tears in the Club works through what it feels like when all the confidence that the “club gaze” demands of us collapses because of an unforeseen catastrophe — when, to quote Kingdom collaborator Kelela, we give someone eyes, but they misread the signs; or seeing your ex kissing someone else; or when you know you’re going to regret going out tonight, because you don’t feel like it, and that fact is going to take its revenge on you in the wee small hours, staring at you like the grim visage of moral failure. Tears is yet another complement to a prevailing cultural mood of sadness. Dancing the night away simply won’t cut it when the outside world seems poorer, nastier, more solitary, and more brutish than ever before.
The bad news is that Tears isn’t as gripping as Kingdom’s earlier work (notably 2013’s Vertical XL). Tears sacrifices the ping-pong polyrhythmic beats that made his earlier material so compelling and replaces it with something simpler. It might sound good on a tear-drenched dancefloor, but it comes across as static in other settings: the played-straight vocals on “What is Love?” and “Breathless” are intended to be club-kid collages, but they’re neither soulful nor sleazy enough to be interesting, and the pitched-up vocal loop on “Each and Every Day” is simply infuriating.
However, “Nothin,” “Down 4 Whatever,” and “Nutureworld” are rewarding listens in a way that the rest of the record simply isn’t. “Nothin’” sums up the mood: the synth pad sighs softly against Rhodes keys, while guest vocalist Syd sets out the basic conflict right from the start: “All these insecurities a woman can’t fix/ But I know that liquor and depression don’t mix.” “Down 4 Whatever” does basically the same thing (“I be missin’ you even when you be around,” sings SZA), but the chorus is catchier and the beat is chunkier — all bass drum bounce and twittering hi-hats — with the pitched-up vocals playing a role typically reserved for cooing backing vocalists.
The desperately short instrumental “Nurtureworld” is probably the standout. The fragmentary vocal loop is impossible to make out, but it fits in perfectly with the various synth sounds. Everything is submerged in a thick fog of filters, smudged make-up, ruined outfits, and the fact that it’s just too damn loud in here to hear the apology you’re so clearly owed.