When I was in junior high, well before YouTube and streaming services cropped up like the blessings they have come to be, we had to rely on physical methods to listen to and share music. Few things were as meaningful and exciting as receiving a mixtape from a friend or, better, a crush who would sheepishly hand you a burned CD with your name on it… literally.
Scrawled in their handwriting on the front was always messy tracklist outlining the songs they had put on there especially for you. Songs that made them think of you, songs that expressed their feelings for you, songs that held memories for the two of you.
Today, playlists take a measly, like, what, five minutes? to string together on Spotify. Back then, you had to rip (or sometimes illegally download–oops) the songs from their original CDs, arrange their order and wait for them to burn to the disc.
The tradition is one that stretches back a few decades–back when a mixtape was literally a cassette tape with a mix of songs on it and consisted of tracks that you painstakingly waited for the radio to hopefully play, recorded straight from it and prayed the overenthusiastic radio DJ didn’t interrupt in the middle.
My point is–making mixtapes for someone you cared about was a thoughtful, time-consuming labor of love, and when you received one, you felt really special.
This week, though many years have passed since junior high, I felt like I was standing in the halls between classes as a mysterious classmate I’ve always admired coolly tosses a jewel case in my locker.
I’ll’s Kiwi Mixtape holds the essence of those relics of time. He himself expressed that it was his hope to recreate the mixtape experience–to give us a peek at his thoughts, each track something of a journal entry, full of diverse expressions and musical styles, various things that were on his mind lately–just like a proper, OG mixtape.
Let me preface by saying that one of the things I love most about I’ll as a songwriter and, even more specifically, a vocalist, is that he doesn’t feel the need to show his tremendous voice off constantly.
What I mean is: we all know, I’ll himself surely knows and frankly anyone standing within a few city blocks of him singing knows that he can belt it out right from the center of his soul, make you feel like you just got knocked back against the wall with the G-Force of a single note.
We know and he knows that he also has a beautiful, delicate falsetto to contrast it, giving his vocal styles such flavor.
But he doesn’t feel the need to bang out both ends of his emotional spectrum every single time just to prove it. Take for example “You & I,” where he seems to be cooing loving promises of a future of commitment to his sweetheart with such a sweet, warm and airy voice.
The romantic promises made here seem every bit as sincere as the fervent proclamation he makes in “Your Ocean” when crying out his vow, “now, I won’t let you go”
Kiwi Mixtape seamlessly shows off his many vocal styles, with I’ll flitting between them effortlessly depending on what is needed to make his point in any given moment without losing that emotional color that he is famous for.
King of versatility? I think so.
Musically speaking, I believe that the track order of Kiwi Mixtape was perfectly executed. The album starts off with the two vibrant pre-release singles that have you bopping in your seat, ramping up for the even more upbeat and dynamic “Animal Instinct” just before it begins to wind back down slightly with “Where Were You.”
Slowly, it trickles down into the soul-searing ballad, “Grace,” that bleeds into the heart-wrenching, raw finale that is “Your Room (Stripped),” a tune so slow and sleepy it feels like it couldn’t possibility exist on the same album as “Animal Instinct.”
But it does. And it works. And it’s brilliant.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise stated, what is expressed below are just my interpretations of the songs. A few of them I’ll has commented on and therefore informed my perception of them, and I’ll mention those instances.
All credit for the English translation of the lyrics goes to the lovely fandom blessing that is @/junhaera on Twitter, and were included here with her express permission. <3
Track #1: Liar
In this track, I’ll uses a classic pop style vocal with no need for that famous flair–although we are treated to a bit of falsetto toward the end. The album gets off to a bang.
Boasting samples of string instruments and the persistent beat supplied by the drum machine, “Liar” is a colorful number that is a bit deceptive (ha…) once you get into the kinda dark lyrics.
They open with what will return throughout the song as the chorus:
Red lips, you're the only one for me
All these are absolute lies, lies
Your eyes, your eyes are shaking
Oh, please, those gestures trying too hard
You lie, lie when you open your mouth
Now. goodbye, goodbye
The body of the song seems to feature themes of an unhealthy relationship darkened by a controlling and gas-lighting partner (you always tell me “you’re so selfish, friends are like poison”).
Throughout, the speaker outlines the pain of a partner who is constantly doubting his whereabouts, never believing him, generally dismissing everything he says as lies… worst of all, they’re telling all of the people in their lives that he can’t be trusted, turning them against him.
But still he puts up with this manipulation–why?
"Are you doubting me?"
When you get angry, I keep on shouting "I'm sorry" only
Whatever you do, you're the only one i see
I think I like you
I can't deny it
By the end of it, the romantic interest has successfully turned everyone against the speaker:
No one will believe even if i talk about it
Even if I make a wish now, all my stories were a lie, lie
Oh, I'm the liar
He revisits the beginning of the song and changes the perspective, something I really like as a feature in storytelling songwriting that comes with a twist:
My lips, you're the only one for me
All these are absolute lies, lies
My eyes, my eyes are shaking
Oh, please, my gestures trying too hard
I lie, lie when i open my mouth
Has he actually let the subject get in his head with all of that gaslighting? Or does he just want them to stay anyway?
The final line of the song seems to speak to the latter, but it’s still nice and open-ended, leaving us to wonder what happens next.
Don't say goodbye, goodbye
Track 2: Just Another Winter Song
During the holiday season, something about winter’s chill, blankets of silent white on the ground and thick gray clouds blotting out the sun above strikes a feeling of longing in people collectively (I mean, if the usual yearning radio-Christmas songs are to be believed).
This one is no different. After having been asked repeatedly by fans to sing carols even though it’s not really his vibe, I’ll decided to go ahead and pen his own.
“Just Another Winter Song” details someone disillusioned with the season and all of its trademark features–dreary snow days (even getting tired of it snowing), incessant Christmas music everywhere you go (the carol Last Christmas echoing from the radio), the sun setting at the offensive hour of 4PM (the days are a lot shorter these days/it gets dark when I wake up)–all the fun stuff we look forward to and that totally doesn’t pile onto our seasonal affective disorders. Not at all….
And running through the thick of it all is this sense that he no longer enjoys the cozy season because he no longer has the person in his life that makes him feel warm.
I'm don't like winter anymore
Even getting tired of it snowing
Because at this point, the winter song that's gonna come out--
The story doesn't matter to me
With a decidedly 1980s vibe, Just Another Winter Song carries that sound the whole way through. At one point, he even stops to–how can I describe it–verbally sample? the classic song “Last Christmas” by stealthily incorporating the title of the song into the lyrics and singing them to the melody of that famous Christmas tune (the carol ‘Last Christmas’ echoing from the radio).
It feels like a song for those of us who feel lonely on the holidays with nothing special happening to speak of, while everyone else is meeting with family, preparing holiday meals, spending time with loved ones and so on. Listless and missing the person that once made the season special, you can practically hear the disappointment in the chorus:
"Merry Christmas, how have you been?"
"I just… just… just…"
But he misses his old beau, thinks about calling them constantly. Eventually, it seems he gives into the urge and ends up with a fairy tale ending anyway. D’awwww.
I'm starting to like winter
I kinda look forward to seeing the snow
Because at this point, the winter song that's gonna come out
Is like my story
Feeling festive yet?
Track #3: Animal Instinct
So, friends of mine who only casually know I’ll/Hoppipolla through me seem to think, after hearing his soulful voice and stirring melodies, I’ll would be the type to be quiet and dreary.
But they’d be quite wrong, and I love “Animal Instinct” because it shows a side of I’ll that Hopers know to be true but that has yet to truly be shown off in his music.
The dorky, loud, animated, funny, Have-Impassioned-Conversations-With-His-Dinner, Do-A-Strip-Tease-In-An-Animal-Crossing-Tshirt, Eat-Black-Food-Coloring-Cake-In-Front-Of-Thousands-Of-Viewers-And-Turn-His-Mouth-Into-A-Terrifying-Abyss kinda guy that fans all know him to be–that version is on full display in “Animal Instinct.”
So is a striking degree of confidence. It feels like a totally new side of I’ll that we see, musically speaking, with bold, self-assured lyrics delivered with animated vocals over a dynamic, electric-guitar driven melody, a funky rolling bass line and even a 70s/80s rock-brand muddy guitar solo.
This feels lively and novel for him, and we love to see it.
The inspiration for the song makes it even better, because the character in the song seems like a reckless, self-absorbed kind of dude that does his own thing with regard for nothing else…
You think I’m cool
You think I’m hot
You know I’m wild
I like your smile
Can't stop my animal instinct
…when in reality, he explained at his first solo concert, Fantasy in I’ll Land, that it was actually inspired by seeing a married friend head home from a party before midnight because that’s what his partner wanted.
The literal translation of the title is Salmon Instinct, referring to the natural instinct of this specific fish to travel back to the place where it came from, pushing against the current to get home where they belong.
This is reflected in lines like:
I’m on my way way way
Faster than anyone
Come back to you like a salmon
The “current” that this particular cute little I’ll-salmon seems to be pushing against is that of drinking and party culture, stating that he stands out among the rest because of his good-boy behavior:
I'm different from the kids these days
I'm well-behaved whatever I do
I don't need a boring drinking party
At one point he even declares a celebratory, excited “I’m home!“
So, to sum it up… I’ll seems to think that respecting a partner’s boundaries and their wishes is sexy… and so do I.
But don’t take all of this so far to mean that he completely forgoes that depth that his heart wrenching vocals and powerful performances suggest he has. If anyone can reach in and grip you by the heart, it’s the men of Hoppipolla, and as one of their vocalists, I’ll goes on to prove it in the back half of the album… that of which gradually becomes sadder and sadder.
Track #4: Where Were You
We start to wind down the vibes in the fourth track, “Where Were You,” returning to that old early ’00s, late 90s sound that he embraces sometimes in his solo music, especially in selections like “I Don’t Want U Back.“
Pop-rock guitar sets the stage for familiarly themed lyrics for the artist–a push-and-pull relationship that leaves him feeling like he’s got one foot in and one out, trying to rid himself of the stress of the relationship but always coming back to it in spite of the strife it causes all the same. It’s on brand for him, really. As much as I love it, in the context of this album, there isn’t all that much to comment on.
Track #5: Grace
Make way for the queen.
Her Royal Majesty, Queen Grace, is everything that Hopers have come to expect from the music we love to sob over. It is heart-quivering, poignant, desperate in its plea for understanding, compassion and empathy.
It’s a real tear-jerker, and even though I have probably heard it a hundred times since its release, every time it comes on, I have to prepare myself for the incoming feels.
“Grace” seems to tell a story of hiding difficult emotions to the best of one’s ability, not wanting to let onto the struggle they keep tucked away in their heart.
I run away from people's fingertips
My hidden crying appearance is overlapping somewhere
But then recognizing that it can’t be handled on one’s own, and it shouldn’t have to be. But what is there even to say? How is it possible to communicate such heavy, complicated feelings? It isn’t.
Right now, I'm just hugging you without saying a word
Sometimes, all you need is for someone to be there for you, and in his desperate yearning for compassion and help, I’ll, with his whole entire heart and soul, goes on to plea:
I need your grace
I can't see it
I can't feel it
We're the same
I'm left alone at the end of the empty spot
I don't want to fall asleep like that
There is the sense that the subject of the song is growing distanced from him, whether it’s because he’s pushing them away or because they are feeling exhausted of him, it’s hard to tell.
It's strange, you who were in my arms, disappear little by little
I'm afraid, I can't even see a trace
In my two hands holding weakly
There's no one's warmth
As always, I wake up from a tangled up dream
And knowing how horrible it is to cope on one’s own, knowing what it looks like to hold it all in and be strong–in return for the grace that the subject has given the speaker, he makes an earnest promise to be the same for them.
I’ll be your love
I’ll be your heart
I’ll be your light
It's alright, don't hide it
You’re crying, right?
We're the same
Someday, everything will resemble the light
I can be hope for someone like me
I’ll be your grace
PAIN. IT HURTS. IT HURTS SO MUCH AND I LOVE IT.
Track #6: Your Room (Stripped)
I guess I should have saved the cleanup from my ugly crying just then until I’m finished talking about the final track, “Your Room (Stripped),” because it’s not any better in terms of the way it grabs onto your heart and shakes it like a dog might a rag doll. “Stripped” in the title refers to the fact that it is just I’ll and his piano–no frills, no extra production, making it a raw listen from the start.
Recently, during his first solo concert, I’ll gave us an explanation about the running metaphor in this song: a room in someone’s heart.
To paraphrase, from my understanding, he believes that we all go through the same difficult truths of the human condition–loss, separation, longing, but we all experience and express it in our art it in different ways.
He stopped to consider what exactly “separation” meant to him, and he came away with the idea that when you love someone, you enter their heart, live in their space. He considers being in love with someone as staying in “their room.” When you separate, you move out of their room.
I really love that metaphor. I’ve thought about it a lot. A lot.
To expand upon that, in my mind, it brings images like getting comfortable on someone’s unfamiliar sofa and reaching for the throw blankets draped across it. They smell like your love’s perfume, and nothing is as comforting as snuggling with it for the first time in an exciting new environment.
It’s picking a side of their bed to sleep on beside them, sinking down into the warmth.
It means working together to decorate the walls with beautiful art that the both of you gaze at endlessly as you laze about, discuss what it inspires.
It’s bringing in your own box of belongings, and your partner happily welcoming you by clearing out spaces in their drawers for you to put your clothes just beside theirs.
It’s your partner accommodating you and taking care of you, making sure you have your own toothbrush at their place and finding out what your favorite body wash is.
It’s filling the room with music that floats from wall to wall and comforts as easily as lovers’ arms can.
Essentially, just getting cozy and comfortable in a new space and filling every single inch to the brim with the love between you.
So thick is this energy that you could practically reach out and run your fingers through it, but why would you, when you could lay around and run your fingers through your lover’s hair in the privacy of this beautiful space the two of you inhabit instead?
Imagine how it feels, then, to separate, to have to move out of that room.
Side-stepping one another as you wordlessly pack up your boxes. Taking down the art from the walls. Helping them move the heavy furniture out, the both of you struggling with a load that is too difficult even for two people to comfortably lift. Opening the windows to air out the room, to forget what their perfume smells like. Avoiding those songs that you sang together in that same room because now it hurts too much.
The room is empty now.
If you’ve ever moved into a new house or apartment and stood in the quiet of the abandoned space, the silence is almost eerie. It’s enveloping. Even the quietest voice seems to echo off of the empty walls with nothing there to absorb the sentiments.
It is lonely and it is crushing, and that is exactly the moment I’ll transports us to when we listen to “Your Room (Stripped).”
An empty space inside this room
I'm just left alone
Pick up the baggage that's been messy for a long time
Rather than the countless wounds that need to be discarded
I'm afraid of the memories left behind
The speaker seems to be standing alone in the center of that room, too, remembering. Grieving.
I’m in your room
There's no one, no one inside the room that locked me up
A silly answer that abandoned me for me
In your room
His voice echoes throughout the duration of the track, much like one’s voice bounces off the walls when standing in a bare room, giving us a truly atmospheric experience as if you were right there with him.
But then it becomes too much to take. The emptiness swallows him whole. He collapses to the ground, maybe.
Suddenly, I’ll is wailing, “I try” with his entire heart and soul, and you feel it in yours. The last minute and a half of this song is devastating.
You can practically hear him rising off of the piano bench as he emphatically presses the keys, plays with his entire body, the anguish reflected by his fingertips as much as it is his emotional voice. It truly is the quintessential I’ll delivery of evocative musicality.
Kiwi Mixtape is precisely what I’ll promised: a look into his mind, an all-genre exploration of his tastes, wants, needs, beliefs. His fears and his hopes. Much like an actual mixtape, he spent a long time preparing it, putting thought into it, so he could hand us a piece of himself that he is proud of.
It’s been nearly a year without a true musical peep from OT4 Hoppipolla, and it’s been even longer since I’ll released an EP, but, as expected, it was absolutely worth the wait to arrive at this beautiful point.
Below, I’ve linked the EP on Spotify.
Give it a chance… but from one emotional masochist to the other–get the tissues ready for that back half.