"I should've fucked your friends," are the first words you hear on Jessie Reyez's debut album Before Love Came to Kill Us. Over the last three years, Reyez has earned a reputation for the candor she displays on her songs, almost as if she's performing open-heart surgery on herself for the world to see. A minute into the album opener "Do You Love Her," Reyez shows no signs of holding back. She spends most of the song condemning her partner, only to realize she's become the same person. "Kiss me, I'm the monster that you made / Now I'm just like you so don't complain," she sings.
Kill Us is the full portrait of Jessie Reyez. It's a composite of the best and worst parts of her. On the album's cover, she's perched on a coffin in the middle of a cemetery dressed in a white gown, and the singer has never been so clear about love and mortality as she is here. "We either break up when we're young, or we say goodbye when we die," she sings. Written in her bedroom when she was injured and forbidden from flying and meeting with producers—an experience not unlike what the world is going through now—"Kill Us" is a eulogy.
"I was in a bad place, as I am most of the time when music comes out of me," she says, explaining her writing process. "Happiness is like a properly seasoned chicken with mashed potatoes. It's good for you, it's good for your soul. But sadness is like eating cake laced with poison. You don't think about throwing up when there's poison in you, it just happens. That's what happens when I'm sad. It's like a faucet and it's potent."
If you've been listening to Reyez since Kiddo, her debut 2017 EP, it might seem like she's been building toward Before Love Came to Kill Us for years. She dresses her love up in gore, swapping mentions of roses for bullets, guns, and death. Her unconventional approach to love songs hasn't stopped her from securing a feature with Eminem and a spot on Beyoncé's The Lion King compilation album. Reyez's songwriting embodies the marital sentiment of "'til death do us part;" In her musical universe, nobody truly escapes love alive.
"This is the first year I've ever stepped out of myself and said, Bitch, you need a hug," she tells me. "Prior to this, the only way I've ever had the capability to love is headfirst with no regard for myself. With that comes breaking your neck, but when you risk big, you win big too."
While the album does take risks, there are also classic Jessie Reyez moments present. "Ankles," channels the rebellious nature of 2018's "Body Count." "La Memoria" is sung in Spanish, just like Being Human in Public's "Sola." And "Intruders" is a love song that doubles as a declaration against Trump's immigration policy, similar to last year's "Far Away." "I'd kill all intruders / 'Cause my love is ruthless," she sings. The song draws parallels between love and colonization, showing that the line between the oppressed and the oppressor is often hazy. Reyez is so protective of her love, territorial even; she'd kill and die for it.
Throughout the album, she uses her unlikely privilege as a woman expertly. If a man spoke about love in the aggressive way she does, there would be blowback. Eminem, at his peak, probably wouldn't survive in the era of identity politics, but Reyez reserves space for him on "Coffin"'s grisly messaging.
Often, music can talk about what brings people to the proverbial ledge, but "Coffin," which is a striking example of her writing style, tells the story of what happens when you jump. The song's production is stripped down with only a guitar like much of Reyez's earlier work. Although the singer's relationship is less than perfect, she'd rather love him into the afterlife in a coffin made for them both. As delicate as the song sounds, the lyrics are eerily morbid. "I'll probably see you in the window, while I'm falling past the fifth floor," she sings.
When I ask if she considers how her imagery might trigger others, you can tell even she grapples with how raw her songwriting is.
"I didn't consider that until I started making the video for ["Coffin"]," she says. "If I'm honest with you, it's a battle. The second I start doing that its censorship, and when I start censoring my shit, who am I?"
According to Reyez, she's searching for ways to prevent people from harming themselves without compromising her art.
"My experience hasn't been fucking roses. It hasn't been Disney. It hasn't been non-violent. My experience has been what I sing about, and it's a balance I'm still learning."
The album was initially titled You Could Die Tomorrow until she wrote "Kill Us." For her, Before Love Came to Kill Us was like putting on rose-tinted glasses for a project fascinated with death.
"I was still in pain during [Kill Us], but I was healing a wound. Kiddo and Being Human in Public were like I just got stabbed, but this album is me stitching up the wound. It's bleeding, but it's stitched."
Note: An earlier version of this story mentioned the song "Ankles" featuring Melii and Rico Nasty. The version of "Ankles" that appears on Before Love Came to Kill Us is the solo version.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.