On the cover of her debut album, Modus Vivendi, New Jersey rapper 070 Shake strikes a fascinating pose. She’s styled to look like an android; her body, save for her face, is encased in glinting metal. Her skin is smooth and vibrant, and “070,” the name of her rap crew and the first three digits of her hometown zip code, is printed above one of her cheekbones in neat black ink. Metal tubes jut from her head and torso, stretching into an orange band that glows like a hot flame. They have the look of constraints and imply danger, but Shake appears unbothered, as if everything is going according to plan.
On Modus Vivendi, that mix of coolness, vulnerability, and ambiguity characterizes Shake’s work. A bit of a stargazer, she’s constantly turning to the cosmos for answers, finding purpose in the mysteries of the universe. Her music has an expansive, exploratory feel, as though she were simultaneously mapping the stars by observing them from afar and visiting them in person. Bridging rap, R&B, emo, and synth pop, Shake follows her instincts rather than a rubric, resulting in songs that feel both unmoored and dynamic.
She began making music in 2015, uploading broody R&B songs to SoundCloud and falling in with the 070 collective, a loose cohort of Garden State producers and vocalists. The next year, on the strength of her song “Proud” and some serendipitous industry connections, she was signed by Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label. It had been barely a year since she’d penned her first song. She lay dormant until the infamous 2018 Wyoming sessions that produced Pusha T’s album Daytona, Kanye West’s ye, and Kanye and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts. Her breakout moment, a spotlight-stealing refrain on Kanye’s song “Ghost Town,” endeared her as a balladeer and a dramatist. “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free / We’re still the kids we used to be / I put my hand on a stove / To see if I still bleed,” she sings, turning pain and anguish into liberation.
Shake’s voice is smooth and powerful yet husky and raw, allowing her to belt big, schmaltzy notes that are emotive without sounding sappy. These qualities are well suited to the modern rap landscape, which over the past decade has tweaked rawness to connote texture and temperature as much as emotional authenticity. Even though their music is awash in vocal effects that superficially sound synthetic and corroded, today’s rappers like to see themselves as unvarnished and genuine because software like Auto-Tune helps them to articulate their inner voice. During the mixing of Modus Vivendi, Shake told Pitchfork, “I need to distort some vocals, make it more real. I don’t want to make it better, I want to make it worse.” This comment clearly marks Shake as a child of the current druggy, robo-soul era of rap (and a close student of Kanye, a notorious tinkerer and perfectionist), but she’s also a bit of a maverick.
Throughout Modus Vivendi, her inner voice is fluctuating and chimeric, defined less by a stable persona and more by constant curiosity and flux. On “Rocketship” she ascends, addicted to the high of a new love. “I’m in need for that rush / Like a tree need the sun,” she sings, her voice fizzing apart on the last word. On “Divorce” the high mood smolders into a dreamy clarity; Shake’s voice is feathery and svelte as she narrates a breakup over streaks of electric guitar and a pitter-patter of drums. “Bones and soil / Fertilize / Face your fear / And face the truth,” she warbles.
Celestial and earth-centered imagery appears often, giving her music a mystical bent. “The Pines,” her take on the folk-standard murder ballad “In the Pines,” plays like a love story. While many renditions of the song, most famously Nirvana’s and Lead Belly’s, liken the wilderness and the song’s female protagonist to darkness and danger, Shake casts her as a seductive bad girl. “Yes, I’m young, but I know just what I like,” she raps defensively, trekking deeper into the woods.
Shake is particularly fond of the moon, which represents something different every time she mentions it. When she’s in love, moonlight feels better than sunlight (“Rocketship”), whereas when she’s in lust (“Under the Moon”), what happens under the moon goes unsaid. On the downswing (“Guilty Conscience”) the morning moon, described as “jaded, faded, almost gone,” symbolizes love in remission. The lunar imagery may be overused, but it’s effective: Shake seems to mention it more out of fascination than reflex, as if she’s awed that there is a natural precedent for her penchant for change.
This attention to scenery and setting is aided by Shake’s producers, who provide lush, strobing backdrops that twinkle and shimmer beneath her quicksilver vocals. The main architects are Dave Hamelin, a Canadian indie rocker, and Mike Dean, a mainstay in the G.O.O.D. Music producer corps, who mixed every song on the album. Together they fill the record with liquid synths, psychedelic keys, and fluid drum sequences that diffuse through Shake’s voice like light through water. The result is a record that is dense, teeming, and airy all at once, as on the frenzied outros to “Microdosing” and “The Pines,” which flare like light shows. For Shake, that pursuit of a “worse” sound doesn’t preclude beauty.
Ultimately, it feels telling that Shake doesn’t recruit any big-name guests for the record. From start to finish, Modus Vivendi is rooted in her voice and vision. Though her writing can be lackluster and her mysticism vague, her confidence and restlessness are disarming. With her wonder alone, she makes the world feel magical and mysterious. Compared with where other Kanye protégés like Travis Scott, Big Sean, and Chance the Rapper were at this stage in their careers, Shake is both miles ahead and plotting a different journey altogether. Perhaps that’s why she seems so unfazed on the album cover. This is only phase one for her.