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Arooj Aftab Blends Sweetness With Beguiling Mystery on ‘Night Reign’

On her fourth solo LP, the Pakistani-American singer reclaims darkness
Arooj Aftab (Photo credit: Shreya Dev Dube)

Arooj Aftab – Night Reign
Verve Records

The South Asian raat ki rani flower blooms on the hottest nights of summer. The tiny white petals punctuate the darkness and fill it with a thick jasmine-like scent that seeps through the windows of your home and weaves into your hair as you walk past a bush of its flowers. The plant is so powerful that perfumers have been bottling its scent for centuries, while South Asian mythology warns that it attracts snakes. 

This duality—an ethos of intoxicating sweetness mixed with beguiling mystery—is at the heart of Arooj Aftab’s new album, which pulls inspiration from the flower. The singer/composer’s last record, 2021’s Vulture Prince, was rooted in the grief of losing both her brother and close friend. The songs, which combined jazz, Hindustani classical, folk, and ghazals (a melancholy form of Urdu music and poetry), were slow-building, smoldering laments on heartache and separation. With Night Reign, Aftab makes an emotional and sonic pivot. Across nine vibrant, experimental compositions, she reclaims darkness, positioning the night as a time of mischief and enchantment. 

The songs on Vulture Prince either anticipated loss or mournfully revisited memories of loved ones already gone. Conversely, there is an exhilarating sense of potential on Night Reign: Dew glistens and flowers prepare to bloom as Aftab opens herself up to new love. Throughout the album, it feels like Aftab is standing on the precipice of transformation—taking a moment to peer into a wild, fluorescent new future and admire all it could have in store. 

Even Night Reign’s ruminations on separation or confusion are tempered with a sense of unshakeable confidence. On opener “Aey Nehin,” Aftab awaits someone’s delayed arrival but doesn’t fixate on the distance between them as she might have before. Rather, she blames external factors like the wind storms or the rain for the person’s delay. On “Na Gul,” she expresses frustration with a lover but ends with affirmation that she will always find connection through love. 

Aftab’s voice is as poised and patient as ever on Night Reign, but the arrangements are playful and exploratory, clearly informed by her familiarity with jazz improvisation. On the extended instrumental outro of “Na Gul,” gentle acoustic gryphon and harp notes twist across a pristine horn that sounds like it’s announcing daybreak. There’s a sense of promise despite the moments of confusion and anguish. “Last Night Reprise” revisits a song from the previous album, transforming a cool jazz and reggae arrangement into a reverie of trilling flute, grainy bass, and fluttering harp. Aftab exalts her beloved’s moon-like beauty throughout the song. Listening to such an ecstatic mix, you feel like you’ve been possessed by her lovestruck gaze. 

Vulture Prince was a master class in restraint, pastiching slivers of grief bit by bit until they grew into a colossal wave of yearning. Conversely, these songs carry the unbridled excitement of a child equipped with a marker and an endless expanse of white wall. Full of jagged left turns and golden flourishes, they are unpredictable and dynamic. The joy they relay is less a sense of contentment than curiosity and willingness to embrace whatever could be. 

No song embodies this ethos better than “Raat Ki Rani,” an inky, Auto-Tuned harp-and-synth ode to a mysterious woman who enchants an entire party with her mere presence. Like the flower she is named after, her aura effortlessly diffuses into the night: Aftab is transfixed by the idea of her without ever exchanging a word. “What are we [even] doing in the day?” the singer recently asked while discussing her new project. “We can see the truths of each other’s faces.” 

It’s the promise of the unknown—the unexpected connections and playful half-truths that thrive in darkness—that thrill her most. – GRADE: A-