Set against red spray paint spelling the words “Broke Pop Kids” in bold, shaky letters, 25-year-old singer-songwriter YAØ springs onto stage to deliver the titular song of his new album. “I’m a broke pop kid, and I don’t know nothing,” he confesses at his album showcase, reflecting the internal strife of young Singaporeans struggling to find meaning in an increasingly stressful environment – and that is exactly the theme of YAØ’s compact eight-track collection.
His songs combine catchy synth-pop beats with soothing R&B vocals, a winning combination that propelled the bespectacled boy to become a rising star. YAØ has independently released a string of singles and EPs since 2017, but Broke Pop Kids, available on all streaming platforms since 8 July, is YAO’s first work under his record label Universal Music.
“I wrote this so that broken individuals can have a voice,” he shares, “chasing your passion in this country is hard, so I want to talk about the unheard voices that need to be heard.” YAØ appears on his showcase in his signature pared-down appearance – a slightly crumpled black blazer layered over a white shirt and a silver chain hanging from his neck. Such a typical Singaporean millennial look, yet it makes him all the more relatable with his empowering message to youths.
YAØ also refers to uniquely Singaporean aspects of our culture. Any local would be familiar with expressions like “Lose Face”, which is a direct translation of the Chinese characters 丢脸, pointing to Asian norms of maintaining an acceptable reputation in front of others. A song from his album, named after it, features a groovy tune with casual vibes that directly counters the stiffness of living up to those expectations.
Heavily inspired by Joji and Post Malone, we see glimpses of these artists in YAØ’s music too. After all, the title track Broke Pop Kids includes electronic and lo-fi elements – similar to Joji’s releases. YAØ proves that he is not afraid to blur artistic boundaries. In a creative choice that echoes Joji’s latest single, Glimpse of Us, the song’s lyrics bleed with the anxiety our generation faces, yet are contrasted by upbeat instrumentals and calming vocals.
“You can’t put somebody in a box,” YAØ tells me. “I think we shouldn’t keep things too black and white and have to see what’s in the middle. We have to see the grey in it.” As he reiterates, the bad can exist in the good and vice versa, so he wants audiences to recognise that duality through his music. “The grey is always hidden, so it definitely needs to stand out more,” he adds.
Who Say hits with a burst of energy, its swaggering moments retaliating against the doubts that people may harbour towards you. Referencing the colloquial term that Singaporeans use to rebut someone, it marks a surprising shift in the singer’s oeuvre as the only rap song in the album. The melody is laced with high-frequency percussion sounds and rousing handclaps. At only over a minute-and-half long, though, Who Say feels cut short and could have been developed further to get listeners more into the groove.
Elsewhere, he succeeds in capturing the restless spirit of young people. I Can’t Sleep explores the challenges of growing up and facing criticism in pursuit of creative ambitions. The pressure culminates into insomnia-inducing chaos that plagues the mind as youths fight to find their place in the world. At its chorus, YAØ’s voice powerfully crescendoes into an impassioned cry that directly speaks to anguished kids trapped between their dreams and societal expectations.
If there’s one track that renders the ache of changing times with beautiful sincerity, it would be New World. “This is a new world; everyday’s getting lonelier and lonelier,” he observes, steeped in emotion. These lyrics remind us of the haunting isolation that comes with modern, fast-paced living. The resulting disillusionment is summed up in “Left out my whole life, even when I’ve done right.” It’s a painfully honest look at his thoughts.
But End of the Day is a light that shines through the darkness. The lullaby delivers a refreshing surge of optimistic vigour as he assures us that we’ll “find our way” eventually. As YAØ’s personal favourite track, it underscores his resolve to keep moving forward. It’s a poignant way to end the album, considering that YAØ revealed in our interview that he still needs to fight some personal demons, so this song might serve as a grounding for him as he continues to grow.
Broke Pop Kids feels cohesive as an album. However, although YAØ shared that every song was like a single to him when he was writing them; the lyrics tend to get repetitive. While admittedly “broke pop kids” is the album’s name, sometimes the songs blur together as they are all peppered with that phrase. The album is indeed a strong start for an up-and-coming musician. Still, it conveys its message in an overly straightforward manner, and YAØ could do well to add nuances or experiment with more complex musicality in the future.
Over intimate crooning in the backing track of I Can’t Sleep, he ponders, “Who are we supposed to be?” At the heart of the album is just a confused boy pleading for others to empathise with his journey in self-actualisation. With its red-and-white graffiti aesthetic, it seems that Broke Pop Kids is a bittersweet letter to home.
Visuals courtesy of Universal Music Singapore.