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‘It’s Hyphy Pop!’ Lolo Zouaï Logs Into a Cyber Dream World on ‘Playgirl’

The last time Lolo Zouaï made an album, she was “super-hardcore dreaming” from behind the host stand during her shifts at Bareburger in New York City. She wanted a future when she could fully focus on her craft instead of making milkshakes for customers.

“I remember I wrote a note in my phone: ‘from milkshakes to millions,’” Zouaï says with a laugh. “I was thinking about what my book would be called. I didn’t want to be doing that forever.”

What came of those early days was her debut, the High Highs and Low Lows, released in 2019. The LP gave listeners an introduction to the complicated, multi-layered person that Zouaï (pronounced zoo-eye) is. On some songs she snuck in sounds and language that tapped into her Algerian roots; on others she sang in French, including the LP’s closer “Beaucoup.”

“I was going through it,” says Zouaï, who was raised in San Francisco by an Algerian father and French mother. “But I felt very, very confident that this album was going to do something for me in life.” It did: Her song “Desert Rose” went viral on TikTok and Spotify and she was hand-picked to join Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia tour. The life-changing experience with one of the world’s biggest pop stars proved to Zouaï that her “hard work was paying off.”

Three years after that first LP, Zouaï — known for her honey-sweet vocals and dreamy R&B sound — returns with Playgirl, a concept album about a cyber-futuristic “world that’s really just inside my brain.”

Playgirl dives into three different characters based on aspects of her personality: Playgirl, Dreamgirl, and Partygirl. The Playgirl character, she says, shows up in the “songs that are creatively more daring and explore my fun, bold side.” Dreamgirl is all about “soft R&B songs that hit the heart, and feel the most nostalgic, sweet and gentle.” (Most of the album is Dreamgirl singing.) And Partygirl embodies the “darker, moodier songs that make you want to do bad things.”

“I need all of the sides to feel like a complete person,” she says. “This album was much more crafted. I spent a lot of time learning about songwriting and getting better at it. I wanted the sound to reflect that, and I feel like it’s just an elevated version of myself.”

Zouaï says the concept for Playgirl was really inspired by none other than Bay Area rapper Too $hort. The title track’s chorus interpolates elements from a 2003 deep cut titled “Pimpandho.com,” on which the raunchy MC rapped about “trying to bust this internet nut” to “dot com whores.”

Zouaï’s album opens with the sound of a dialing phone and her voice saying “Lolo presents Playgirl, www.Playgirl.com, hot play girls in your area,” immersing the listener into the world she’s created.

“I was like, ‘Let me flip it and take the power and make this my world, but it’s not sexual,’” she explains. “It’s more about logging on to this album: Get in your room, put your headphones on. We’re about to go on this trip.”

On Zoom from Paris, three days after opening for the Marías’ one-off show at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, the “bitch from the bay [who] can talk all day” breaks down five tracks from her new album:

“Pl4yg1rl” (Playgirl)

“This song came from me listening to Too $hort, who is one of my favorite rappers. I’ve been saying that for so long and can’t get over it. Specifically, his song ‘Pimpandho.com.’ It’s one of my favorite songs of his. The beat just sounds so futuristic and so cool. He’s talking about logging on and seeing naked ladies — it was at the beginning of Internet porn. I was just like, ‘Why am I so into these kinds of songs? I’m a feminist, but how can I enjoy these songs?’ I was super impressed with [my producer] Stelios. I had to shout out the Bay. It’s a hyphy song. I don’t consider it hyper pop — I consider it hyphy pop! It’s hyphy pop with a little R&B.  It’s addictive. Once I made it, the album made sense.”

VHS” (Dreamgirl)

“You know those playlists on YouTube that are like ‘chill lo-fi studying music?’ And it’s like a seven-hour loop? I wanted something in that world. When we came up with the arpeggio, I just instantly saw pink and this room with Hello Kitty and cats and checkered floors. I just had this vision. The song wrote itself. It has an R&B swing. I wrote it about growing up and wanting to have my whole room to be decked out in Hello Kitty, but I couldn’t afford the Sanrio stuff. It’s kind of reflecting on that. Fast forwarding to living in Brooklyn, during the pandemic, my sheets were Hello Kitty. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have what I wanted. But I’m sad. And when I didn’t have it, I was actually happy’” When you’re a kid and you have all this optimism, I felt very confident and nobody could tell me shit. As I got older, I let the outside perspective affect my self-esteem. I’m looking back on that and trying to keep my childhood confidence.” 

“Crazy Sexy Dream Girl” (Partygirl)

“Stelios wanted to do something with this beat and I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is my vibe.’ We were in the room in New York, just playing it out loud. I was on the room mic recording melodies and then I came up with the hook ‘I never want another boyfriend. They’re no good for me.’ I didn’t overthink the lyric. ‘They never want to keep it open. Take every part of me.’ Because in relationships, I’m always like, ‘Can we just keep this open?’ But guys want to like, have you. It’s the manic pixie dream girl, but my version of it. In my relationships, I felt like maybe people were attracted to the brokenness and the craziness. I was tired of that and wanted to be free of it. It’s also just about a night in New York when it was raining with my best friend. When you don’t want to date anybody, but you’re still like, ‘Where the cuties at?’ It’s this endless cycle of being a little bit reckless. Production-wise, it really grew on me. It’s become one of my favorite songs on the album. It feels like the past but it also feels fresh.”

“Gummy Bear” (Playgirl)

“‘Gummy Bear’ was totally inspired by Gwen Stefani and Pharrell. What would I do if they made a sound like this now? It just slaps. The era where Fergie was Fergie, her debut album [The Dutchess] was also so good. Her harmonies always inspired me. I wanted to make something really fun and visual, but then also bring in those guitars during the pre-choruses. The 2000s was a really cool inspiration for this project, mainly for the Playgirl character. I’m really excited to have ‘Gummy Bear’ for the concerts. I feel like it’s a good song to get ready to. It doesn’t have much depth, but I do think that it’s smart songwriting. ‘Let me get a six-foot cutie, like to grip on this booty.’ [Laughs.] I’ve never said booty in a song, but I say booty so much in my life. So I’m like, ‘Why can’t my music reflect my personality?’”

“Room” (Partygirl)

“This was probably the earliest song that I wrote for this album. Maybe it could have fit the first album in a way. It’s about being taken advantage of and wanting to plot revenge on somebody because they hurt you. The first line is ‘I used to give a fuck’ — but I gave a fuck a lot about that line. It took me probably 200 times to record that one line. I was like, ‘This is the intro to the song. I have to sound like I don’t give a fuck.’ But I gave a fuck! That one has a really powerful message. If you listen to it once, you might just think it’s about a breakup or something. But it’s definitely about more, and I think it’s important to have different themes and music and not just be about love. It’s important to talk about the darker things.”

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