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By Zim Ahmadi

Singaporean rapper Mary Sue’s KISSES OF LIFE is like a Polaroid photo. It’s beautiful and occasionally evocative on the one hand, but it’s also disposable and fleeting on the other. Over 22 two- to three-minute tracks and myriad collaborations, KISSES OF LIFE explores a litany of conceptual and emotional topics, including grief and vulnerability.

Evaluating KISSES OF LIFE is tricky. One could focus on its hypnotic nature, its purposeful use of loops and distortion echoing a style of hip-hop that houses everyone from  DJ Shadow to Earl Sweatshirt. If left to simmer in the background, KISSES OF LIFE feels like a sample-heavy, woozy landscape as it drifts organically from jazzy to soulful to gloomy to off-kilter. In some ways, it’s more akin to an ambient record.

Mary Sue makes great use of field recordings on KISSES OF LIFE. The thunder on “Popo and Gonggong”, “Cartoons”’ fireworks, and the toast in “Yam Seng” all make for a living and breathing record that walks you through Mary Sue’s introspections on sadness, memory and recovery.

Look at it more closely, though, and, KISSES OF LIFE feels a bit of a slog. Despite pulling off an impressive  Earl Sweatshirt impression, Mary Sue doesn’t really offer much in terms of lyrical acrobatics or engaging storytelling. This feels especially obvious during the first half, stuck as it is in jazzy boom-bap and Madlib-derived soul territory.

Without much to distract you from the drab beats, the first half feels like a reminder that the personal isn’t always compelling, no matter how candid and vulnerable the expressions.

On the other hand, the collaborations make KISSES OF LIFE worth checking out despite any lyrical shortcomings. For example, Jaso’s UK rap flair saves “Orbs” from complete inoffensiveness.  KAYA lends a distinctive soul and voice to “Remedy”, her dark, stream-of-consciousness verse making it the album’s best.  Singaporean producer fauxe’s contribution to “Voice Memo” is worth pointing out, too. Despite being extremely short, it feels way more transformative than the rest of the album simply because it dares to be raw and distinctive in its spontaneity.

On “Life’s Kisses”, Mary Sue proclaims that “we’re not making hits, we’re making shit that you need to sit with”. After the fourth listen, I wish there was actually more to contemplate. KISSES OF LIFE has potential. It just lacks personality.