Arooj Aftab

Night Reign

Grammy-winning New Yorker settles into her first major label album with a record no less striking or adventurous than its predecessors, finds Jeremy Allen

The title of Arooj Aftab’s latest album might suggest we’re about to plunge down the tenebrous spiral staircase of the soul. But there’s also a lightness of touch that infuses Night Reign, even lifting us up at times. These are deep, emotional, sometimes bruising songs, though the insinuation of total darkness belies the exquisiteness of its spiritually rigorous forty-eght minutes.

The darkest hour is just before dawn, goes the old proverb, and at the conclusion of songs like ‘Last Night (Reprise)’ or ‘Na Gul’, there’s a sense of emerging into a new day following a passing storm, where the senses are awakened and everything feels fresher and more alive. That’s not to say there’s no mournfulness. ‘Saaqi’ is a soundscape rendered almost funereal with Aftab’s rich, dolorous tones stretching it out into infinity, but Night Reign is more crepuscular than anything, where night and day come together, and sex and death are never far removed from one another. Her cover of ‘Autumn Leaves’ exemplifies that smoky, jazzy, sensuous danse macabre.

Aftab’s previous album, 2021’s Vulture Prince, was the very definition of mixed blessings. Dedicated to Maher, the younger brother she lost, its lamentations sung mostly in Urdu resonated with a listenership largely unacquainted with the language, finding a much bigger audience than could have been expected. The song ‘Mohabbat’ made it onto one of Barack Obama’s suspiciously immaculate playlists, and went on to win Best Global Music Performance at the Grammys. The Pakistani-American singer was also nominated for Best New Artist too, becoming the first Pakistani woman to receive a nomination. Understandably, her ambivalence was assuaged by the possibilities it offers her as an artist going forward. She told The Guardian in 2022: “I’ve spent the past twenty years living and growing musically in New York, so I don’t feel like a ‘world’ or ‘global’ artist. My music is a product of my experiences and I don’t want to engage with this nonsense of being put in a box, but these awards further your career in a big way, so I have to care.”

Aftab now finds herself on a major for the first time in the shape of the Universal-owned Verve Records, with this album very much adhering to the subsidiary’s rich history rather than the restrictive practices of its less open-minded overlords. Given the weight of Vulture Prince’s success, there was never any question she would switch predominately to English or bring in Max Martin – like its predecessor, the experimentalism of Night Reign never occludes the listener. Kaki King and Gyan Riley’s acoustic guitars on opener ‘Aey Nehin’ combine to foster an enveloping warmth, while Maeve Gilchrist’s divine harp playing elsewhere adds a welcoming succour. Moreover, the microtonal singing of the beautiful, sinuous ‘Na Gul’ or the rippling Rhodes solo – played by sometime Questlove acolyte James Francies – at the conclusion of ‘Autumn Leaves’ adds a little mystery and even a touch of exoticism. Night Reign is an adventure into the night, but you never feel unsafe or unsure with Arooj Aftab leading us there, because right now she can do no wrong.

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