Album Review: ZHU Ignites Gothic, Introspective Themes on Spellbinding “DREAMLAND 2021”

Electronic artist ZHU has always looked towards the future, but 2020 gave him more of a reason than ever. While trapped inside for most of last year, the Grammy-nominated virtuoso forged his latest LP, DREAMLAND 2021, with the intention of taking body, mind, and soul to a more optimistic soundscape of his own design.

“I don’t believe that music, dancing, [or] the freedom of expression will be suppressed for much longer,” ZHU said in a press statement. “They can’t—that’s against human nature.”

ZHU began his project with the intention of lighting up dancefloors, believing in their power to transcend and enable people to come together. Cultivating sounds by way of this mantra, the acclaimed artist has created another innovative work of art that seamlessly combines genre, style and mood. DREAMLAND 2021 is made up of grimy techno and sweaty house tracks, all falling under a dark pop aesthetic.

The album opens with “Lost It,” which leads with familiar synth notes before allowing a grungy bassline to settle in. Sifting through the sultry production are ZHU’s own haunting vocals, no longer an accent to his own electronic music. On DREAMLAND 2021, ZHU fully fleshes out his vocal talent on a scope not heard in precious releases.

“Distant Lights” follows, offering more upbeat house production and a blared rock intro reminiscent of the cinematic highs of Daft Punk or Justice. ZHU’s vocals return as a lead as the track builds toward reckless, ecstatic abandon.

"Blue Dream" has a more vibrant, tech house feel. The track rides ZHU’s vocals, which deliver hotly-clasped moments of tense synths and rumbling basslines. “How Does It Feel,” a collaboration with fellow crossover superstar Channel Tres, returns to a more palatable pop feel. This Disclosure-esque track offers snappy kicks, lead vocals by Tres and airy harmonizes from ZHU.

This first of five features unveils the collaborative approach ZHU was going for in DREAMLAND 2021. “You can’t generate the same kind of community and connection without other people,” he said. “Electronic music is about sharing. I’m not trying to be selfish with it.”

Since its release in late March, “Sky is Crying” has amassed over 3.2 million streams worldwide. Somber grooves and a thumping beat offer a cool backing to this dark electropop track. The song also finds ZHU singing alongside celebrated Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna.

“Sweet Like Honey” perhaps draws the most comparisons from pop superstar The Weeknd, who seems like a foregone collab at this point. The track opens with melodramatic piano strikes alongside gothic vocals, where we once again tap into ZHU’s potential in the pop realm.

While the vibrating house beat will draw the attention of electronic listeners, his vox seem well suited to appeal to the masses. On “Yours,” meditative keys provide the backing to a tradeoff between ZHU and Arctic Lake. The track conveys tension between lust and the ache for love, and also sees the return of Mitch Bell, who played guitar on ZHU’s 2016 "NEON CITY" tour.

“SOCO” thrives on more minimal house and vocal composition. “Only,” one of the record's 2020 singles and a collaboration with Tinashe, is an R&B-infused radio banger. Pulsing bass and seductive sound design transcend this and “Zhudio54” from being simple, moth-eaten pop hits. Rather than catering to the mainstream, ZHU’s tracks seem to bring all listeners under one roof with the intention to rave.

“Good 4 U” opens with brooding piano before distorted, distanced vocals call out ahead of the first non-house beat of the album. The track develops a more hip-hop feel, foreshadowing the smooth rap contributions of Kota the Friend before the record wraps up with “I Need That.” 

Its closing track is also a further departure from the house stylings of DREAMLAND 2021. Eerie piano dances over another hip-hop beat, providing a sumptuous atmosphere to tie a bow on the album. Blaring synths and hypnotic, distorted bars at the end add a little more hype, if only to remind listeners that this journey was intended to unite as live music returns.

“If people can dance at their house with this music blasting on the sound systems in their living rooms, that’s a great first step to returning to that energy,” he says. “All you need is some speakers and another person. That’s enough.”