On “Akoma,” Jlin Fuses Technical Precision with Boundless Imagination

Math and music are often said to be related, but for composer and producer Jlin, they’re inseparable. “Composition, for me, is like one big proof,” she told me in our recent interview. “I have all the answers, but I have to figure out what the question is.”

As we spoke, I began to see that her fiendishly good writing stems from a larger creative philosophy – one that brought her from humble beginnings to a wide open path. Jlin began producing music in 2007 while studying architectural engineering and computer graphics technology at Purdue University. She got her start using FL Studio to create footwork tracks – a genre of electronic dance music that emerged in Chicago in the 90s and features flurries of off-beat samples in an upbeat tempo. Far from just a hobby or side hustle, composing soon became a major force in her life. “I was running away from myself so I could run to myself, and I just didn’t realize it at the time,” she said.

Jlin’s evolution beyond the footwork genre began with her self-proclaimed “jump-off-the-cliff” track, “Erotic Heat” (2011), which gained further momentum after fashion icon Rick Owens featured it in a show a few years later. While supporting herself as a steel mill worker in her industrial hometown of Gary, Indiana, she released her debut album, Dark Energy (2015), which was followed two years later by Black Origami (2017).

It’s difficult to put a label on Jlin’s music because it does so many things at once. “I have never put boundaries on my work – ever,” she said. In new music spaces, we often talk about music that bridges genres. But for Jlin, that bridge doesn’t exist in the first place. “People laugh at me when I say, oh, classical and trap music are very much one in the same; the arts are very related.”

Jlin -- Photo by Lawrence Agyei

Jlin — Photo by Lawrence Agyei

We can see this philosophy play out in “Open Canvas,” a track from her third studio album, Akoma, out Mar. 22 on Planet MU. The track begins with a funky electronic riff that gains momentum as it anxiously drives forward before plunging into a downtempo pool of mbira grooves, where it is washed clean by foamy waves of synth pads. As we oscillate between these sonic spaces, they become increasingly fragmented, and eventually indistinguishable.

Akoma pulls you in with its irresistible grooves, incisive syncopations, and intricately layered soundscapes; the sheer danceability of these tracks is a siren call that turns heads while belying the depth of complexity lurking just beneath the surface. But although there’s often a strong cohesiveness to her albums, Jlin doesn’t work with any overarching narrative or framework. “I never have a blueprint or an idea,” she told me. “I like creating from a blank canvas, so I never know what I’m going to do until I do it. I’m an intuitive creator; I feel my way through as I’m writing.”

While she approaches the concept for each album with a sense of openness, there is nothing improvisatory about the tracks themselves. “I have a mantra that I call CPU: clean, precise, and unpredictable,” she said. “I love the audience, but before it gets to them, I have to surprise myself. If I can do that, it means that I have fulfilled its purpose.”

The balance of seriousness and playfulness that Jlin achieves on Akoma left me wondering how an artist can create something that sounds at once so controlled and yet so spontaneous. When I found myself fixating on the technical wizardry of these tracks, a twist of some sort – a sudden shift in tempo, an unexpected timbre, a bass drop – never failed to bring a smile to my face.

Jlin -- Photo by Lawrence Agyei

Jlin — Photo by Lawrence Agyei

Jlin’s open attitude towards composition has led to some unique projects, such as her fully acoustic string quartet, Little Black Book (2011), commissioned by Kronos Quartet. “That was the first time I’d done something like that,” she said, “but I have never put boundaries on my work. I’ve never said ‘this only plays at a festival, or a club.’ My work is like water, flowing and adapting to what it touches. I love the fact that Kronos understood the same concept; they didn’t put limitations on their work.”

Kronos Quartet is also featured on Akoma alongside Björk and Philip Glass. These iconic artists may be stylistically divergent, but Jlin says they have one thing in common: “In the irony of Philip’s name, none of them are afraid to break the glass. They’re not just set in stone, saying ‘I don’t belong in this or that.’ They’re up to try it all. I love working with artists like that.”

One of the standout tracks on Akoma is “The Precision of Infinity,” which places samples of Glass’ paradigmatic rippling and introspective piano riffs in dialogue with a bass-heavy, uptempo electronic soundscape. When she approached Pomegranate Arts (with whom both artists work) with the idea for the track, she said, “My dream is for [Philip] to just create: wake up in the morning, and whatever he decides to play, I’ll work around. And that’s what he did.”

Jlin and Glass are kindred spirits, driven by intuition and united by their interest in the immediacy of the creative act. “You hear the struggle, the vulnerability, the triumph of him,” Jlin explained. “That’s what makes me appreciate him so much.” And the track plays like a dream as it marries the liquid rubato of Glass’ piano with Jlin’s meticulous and splashy electronics.

A strong sense of physicality and movement unites Akoma, which is spurred on by an eclectic blend of synthetic beats and percussion samples from around the world and close to home. Jlin cites “Middle Eastern drumming, HBCU percussion, full marching band, Taiko drumming, and Burundi drumming” as among her points of inspiration. Always writing from a place of openness, she freely draws upon wide-ranging influences to develop the distinct sound of each track.

Jlin’s accomplishments to date include residencies with EMPAC and MASS MoCA, as well as being shortlisted for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Perspective, written for Third Coast Percussion. But despite all her success, she has remained humble and down to earth. For her, success isn’t defined by the accolades; it isn’t something you can achieve one day and safeguard the next. “We have to define success,” she said, “because the success you see is just the tip of the iceberg. For me, success is also the part you don’t see – the discipline, the frustration, the crying, the wanting to give up, the hell you go through. And when you overcome that, you realize that the tip of the iceberg is showing, but most of it is underwater.” 

Embracing this wabi-sabi philosophy requires a great deal of resiliency and a dash of humor, and Jlin has both. “Nobody’s cheering for you one thousand percent of the time, and if they are, you’re in trouble,” she said. “One of the best experiences of my life was when I got cheered for at Lincoln Center and then booed at Afropunk, all in the same night. I loved it.”


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