Annot(e)tations is a column by Austin Nguyen that shines a light on the hidden gems of recently released albums or singles that may have flown under your radar. This week, he discusses Tei Shi’s “Red Light.”
A preface (aka my shoddy excuse of a lede): I’ve done my best these past couple of weeks to stick to the “recently released” part of the Annot(e)tations introduction, and not to pat my own back or anything, but I think I’ve been pretty successful….that is, until now.
Initially, this piece was going to focus on Tei Shi’s “Even If It Hurts (feat. Blood Orange),” which was released last week, but the track felt more like an afterthought from the recording session for Blood Orange’s “Negro Swan,” not Tei Shi’s own song.
And so, I’m — once again — breaking my own rules, pulling an August Eve aside, and honoring Tei Shi’s announcement of her sophomore album “La Linda” with a not-so-recent song: “Red Light,” released in July and perhaps the most underrated of the lead singles out thus far.
While bird chirps and synth chords crescendo to open up the track, the rays of the sun seem to stretch out their wings, expand across the sky, before the spotlight shimmers onto Tei Shi. Her voice is just as ethereal, an airy and effortless soprano that floats with the clouds, but its lyrical subject matter of a postmortem relationship — not so much.
Make no mistake though.
Tei Shi is not the singer who fills the void of heartbreak with the, at times, hollow melancholia of trite piano chords (no offense to, like, any pop singer, um, ever); instead, past lovers become a blip in her “rear view,” and the light beyond break-ups pans into view as she moves on, focuses on the road ahead of her rather than blowing up dead history into grandiose, CinemaScope proportions.
The closest Tei Shi ever gets toward memories of the forlorn is in the first verse — pondering “How many nights did I waste on you, on you?/ Burnin’ my eyes in the smoke-filled room for two” — but even those lines seem to replace regret with an eye-roll, more “boy bye” sass than “good-bye” mourning, before the chorus takes over.
Heralded in by a subtle key change and a syncopated beat, this is Tei Shi anew, keeping the past in mind with coulda, woulda, and shoulda’s, but not letting it stop her from “hit[ting] the road,” “tak[ing] the wheel and driv[ing] by.”
The production follows suit when the synth chords of the verses chime back in for the second half of the chorus, a bit disjunct from the sonic landscape of the new key, like pieces of a puzzle that fit geometrically but don’t seem to match the picture on the box, but it’s the perfect amalgam of what was and what is, the side mirror and the windshield.
By the bridge, Tei Shi turns the know-better’s of the past into promises for the future: “I’m gonna do what I shoulda/ I’m gonna do what I coulda/ I’m gonna do what I shoulda.”
And as the ending unravels across the circles of fifth, modulating ceaselessly and reverse-engineering Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” with the dissonance of Frank Ocean’s “Ivy” ending, maybe it’s that hope that keeps the ending moving, turning across key signatures and traversing farther and farther away from the “red light” of the past until the sound fades out with the setting sun.