All eyes on Inga Copeland

Courtesy of Margot Heron/The Occidental

The cover for Inga Copeland’s sophomore record, “The Smoke,” is astutely modern. It looks like it was captured by accident on a moving iPhone. The landscape is uneven while the blurred outline of a mysterious yet impressive structure tilts in motion. A row of green lights appears copy-and-pasted in the image’s upper half. Their faintness makes it hard to tell if they’re organically part of the composition or an artificial addition included to disrupt its form. The photograph’s most striking feature shakes just above the thin string of lights. A bizarre white smudge perched between columns overwhelms me with confusion. As my eyes move closer, it makes less and less sense. I zoom out and the context collapses. The architecture is both foregrounded and out of focus. Copeland’s meticulously constructed sonics follow a similar composition.

In previous projects, Copeland abandoned curation for scattershot sketches. Her earliest work was a collaboration with experimental artist Dean Blunt, and they united under the moniker “Hype Williams.” In 2012, they released their first record titled “Black Is Beautiful.” Its suave textures flatter cosmopolitan aesthetics, but it can’t be housed within a normative genre. Copeland was born in Russia but grew up in Estonia before venturing to London for college. Her sound is uniquely nationless and remains undocked to a particular shore. The pair split around 2014 and Copeland’s debut record titled “Because I’m Worth It” was uploaded to Spotify and Google Play without a label backing. She refuses to compress her style for a more common audience. After a slight rebrand, her latest songs now appear under the name Lolina.

Copeland’s Twitter icon features a steep shot of an escalator as the artist stands at the top, surveying the scene. One platform block displays the letters “LOL” graffitied on its base. Her looming presence cements a sense of irony. It invokes her playful mystique because it’s unclear if she is laughing with you or at you. Misdirection is essential to her work, and every gesture appears as a wink as if to signal she knows something you don’t. Copeland’s signature songs are mazes filled with trap doors, reflecting mirrors and sinkholes. She enters a record minutes into its instrumental and then disappears for long gaps of time. Her assertive convictions are packed with rebellious contradiction. It creates an environment of chaos, but that‘s what makes her work so sharp. It is inspiring to hear someone confidently in control despite confusion raising up inside them. While the listener scrambles to piece the puzzle together, she purposefully re-scatters it with every new claim. Her words aren’t expressed in order to make you believe her, but her confidence in performing them seduces your trust.

Copeland’s latest record titled “The Smoke,” released in March, is quietly growing into one of this year’s most secure and niche pieces of art. The record embraces both the excitement and malaise of not knowing. She guards secrets and keeps the listener at a distance in order to become captivatingly self-possessed. At her best, Copeland recreates the dizziness of being locked in a room with no windows. Cues reveal themselves in mysterious negative space and digital beeps arrange in formation like Morse code. “The Smoke” is less frenetic than a band like The Raincoats, but Copeland leans into that tangled-up sound with a machine-like sense of order. “Style and Punishment” is methodically detailed with moments of tight-chested tension. Her production is heavy but slick with jagged lines cutting across calm vocals. On “Fake City, Real City,” Copeland sings, “I know just where your head is,” as an ominous noise twists and coils in the background.

“The Smoke’s” best track appears halfway through the record and splits it wide open. From the opening muffled horn of “The River,” Copeland goes from wandering and stumbling to right behind you. It is built on intense rhythms that hang by a thread. Her phrases slice up meaning like a sharp knife. Copeland depicts a game of cat and mouse without revealing the terms of circumstance. She’s on the run and in a rush, but we don’t know why. The listener is thrown into a roaring chase and only given the outline of danger. Instead of using a strained voice to convey intensity, Copeland weaponizes words and suffocates coherence. Her paradoxical trail of ideas can be exhausting to keep up with and leaves little room to breathe.

“The Smoke” is not a record that is easily comprehended. Its nonlinear form is thrilling, and the spontaneity of her artistic choices bring the record to life. Many listeners want music to be understandable, but Copeland’s misdirection is her art. She just wants to express something, and all we have to do is listen.