In 2011, the musician known as Grimes released “Oblivion,” an eerie electronic song that was created with Apple’s amateur recording software GarageBand and touched on her experience with assault. (Sample lyric: “I never walk about after dark … someone could break your neck.”) That’s not typical Top 40 fodder, but it made Grimes (born Claire Boucher) an unlikely pop tastemaker–and critical acclaim for her third album, 2012’s Visions, led to a management deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation and the opportunity to write for Rihanna.
Her follow-up album, Art Angels, which was released digitally last month and will have a physical release on Dec. 11, explores her pop side without indulging it entirely. Like her career so far, the album makes distinctions between mainstream and underground irrelevant. For every song like “Flesh Without Blood,” with a buzzing guitar riff that would be at home in a Katy Perry track, there’s a song like “Scream,” which features Taiwanese MC Aristophanes rapping in Mandarin while Grimes howls in the background. The album’s split personality is no accident, given that Grimes writes, records, produces and engineers her music. That can be frustrating for fans who wish she’d commit to one side, but it makes her songwriting and sound truly singular (if an acquired taste). Is Grimes a pop star or an auteur? Maybe it doesn’t matter–the way she blurs the line between the two is far more interesting than the answer.
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.
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