I first beheld Poppy in the winter of 2016 as my friends and I perused the depths of YouTube while monstrously stoned. We discovered her enormous trove of bizarre online shorts and were left in complete awe. Here was a mysterious young woman crafting unsettling, Lynchian videos that parodied issues of the day with razor-sharp incision. In the midst of a traumatizing presidential election, she interviewed a plant with googly-eyes about politics. She read passages from the Bible verbatim for over an hour. In one particularly edgy short (since removed), she demonstrated how to assemble and load an AK-47 rifle.
In the time since, Poppy has quickly transformed from a viral performance art project into a bona fide pop star, signing to Diplo’s Mad Decent label and dropping her debut album, Poppy.Computer, last year. And while her sophomore project Am I a Girl? is certainly a more memorable enterprise than its predecessor, it doesn’t quite posit her as the transgressive pop star of the future that her album campaign would have us believe her to be. On the contrary, it punctuates the feeling that a crucial part of her persona has been lost in the shuffle towards the mainstream.
By and large, Am I a Girl? is a record that explores a few of today’s buzzier trending topics through the lens of the idea that Poppy may be an android. This ‘is she or isn’t she?’ shtick wears itself thin fairly quickly, making tracks like “Hard Feelings” (with a chorus of “Hard feelings, you got my circuitry bleeding/ Am I a man or machine?”) cliché to the point of tedium.
Even less amusing is the album’s title track, which attempts to position this thematic through line as parallel to the conversation surrounding gender identity. While it is heartening to hear “Sometimes I’m feminine/ sometimes I’m masculine/ don’t evaluate me as woman or man” thrust into public discourse, one can’t help but think a deeper understanding or conveyance of the nuances of these issues would have made for a more meaningful piece. That the song is a mid-tempo mashup of hardcore guitar thrasher and EDM festival anthem isn’t doing it any favors either.
It is, however, redeemed by the proceeding track “Play Destroy,” a collaboration with Grimes that balances those diverging sonic paths with finesse. It’s a high-octane thrill ride that recalls some of the more intense outings from Grimes’ 2015 album Art Angels. Even if her intimate affiliation with mega-CEO Elon Musk makes her coos to burn down corporate entities feel forced at best, it remains a compelling showcase for Poppy, a genre-experiment that meshes surprisingly well.
The strongest track is unquestionably “Time Is Up,” a bop produced by Diplo that practically oozes dancefloor appeal. It is also among Poppy’s best songwriting on the record; a set of irresistible hooks strung one after the other that glide atop an array of arpeggiated synths. Equally as strong are its lyrics, a fable of the coming apocalypse that places Poppy’s coy musings on artificial intelligence in a setting that finally does them justice.
Diplo’s presence (and, of course, his label’s funding) is a reminder of the utterly sparkling production on display. It is the one unifying factor of the project, offering a cohesion that ameliorates the effects of its less savory compositions – looking at you, “Aristocrat.” This is not to suggest that Am I a Girl?’s brighter moments are their triumph; Poppy remains intriguing if not wholly charismatic. Rather, it’s a life vest thrown her way to have such a solid crew manning the booth.
Am I a Girl? is an enjoyable enough club record, but it fails to add anything new to the conversation. Not every album can (or even should) have to address subjects of great consequence, but one would have hoped that we would have at least gotten a larger glimpse into who Poppy is for album number two. That her freeform viral videos accomplished this in a far greater capacity than anything that has come since is telling; one hopes that she’ll get back in touch with it next time around.