In an interview with Rookie around the time of the release of Xenia Rubinos’ first EP, Magic Trix, in 2013, the Brooklyn-based singer and multi-instrumentalist described how she wanted “exuberance” in the record. “Sometimes you can get too serious about whatever it is that you’re doing, especially in music,” she said. “I try not to take myself too seriously.” The result was a short burst of energy in the form of four genre-defying songs that crackled with life; covering love, identity, and race, they were serious, but they didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Rubinos’ first full-length, Black Terry Cat, is similarly exuberant. The artist uses the space of each song to play, molding fourteen tracks into very different and delightful shapes. She studied jazz in college, but moves effortlessly in and out of pop structures, tossing into it the joyful freedom of art-rock, the vocabulary of hip-hop, the rhythms of Caribbean music, the kittenish experimentation of jazz, the smoothness and flow of R&B, and the groove of funk, among other ingredients. Sometimes she chants halfway between spoken word and rap; sometimes she croons soulfully; and sometimes she howls passionately.
Perhaps the root of that last adverb better characterizes Black Terry Cat than “exuberance.” While “exuberance” strictly encompasses positivity, passion can contain both joy and rage—a more fitting spectrum for an album in which some of the tunes are love songs, others are political, but many are both. In her first EP, Rubinos touched on identity politics in the seamless shift between English and Spanish that reflected her Hartford upbringing in a home with Puerto Rican and Cuban parents and Mariah Carey on the radio. On Black Terry Cat, it is more explicit and—possibly influenced by the national conversation on race that has transpired in the time since Magic Trix—angrier. “Just like I love you, I kill you,” Rubinos sings in the refrain on “Just Like I,” demonstrating the duality of passion.
And just like her music calls on different influences and tones, so does her criticism. On “Mexican Chef,” the uptempo, percussion-driven song alternates between catchy chants and melodies that contrast the overtly political message, “We [brown] build the ghettos and we tear them down.” On “I Won’t Say,” she quotes the late jazz singer and activist Abbey Lincoln’s 1966 essay, “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” chanting descriptors over near-silence: “Whose hair is compulsively fried, whose skin is bleached, whose nose is ‘too big,’ whose mouth is too loud, whose butt is too broad, whose feet are too flat, whose face is too black?”
On “See Them,” one of the most structurally complex tracks, her criticism leans towards a defiant kind of joy. After a beginning melody and synth bass that resemble St. Vincent in tone, it then goes on to mimic freestyle rap in its associative rhymes that include the phrase, “pack gats,” as she sings, “You know where to put the brown girl when she's fucking it up / Where you gonna put the brown girl now she's tearing it up?" She asks this reverberatingly powerful question again in the song, but only after it collapses into a nursery rhyme-like riff off of the lighthearted-yet-creepy childhood line, “Crack an egg on your head…” Once again using the space of a song to play, Xenia Rubinos still doesn’t take herself overly seriously. Throughout the exuberant, passionate work of Black Terry Cat, though, she certainly demands that we do.