Album Cover via Dominic Fike/Instagram

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Every day, Donna-Claire gets closer and closer to abandoning her Twitter identity and just tweeting boardgame takes and game reports for the one person who might care to hear such thoughts.

Like most music writers with an Active Twitter Account in the late 2010s, I discovered Dominic Fike from “3 Nights,” a wildly catchy single that stood out from a pack of demos the Florida native recorded that ultimately landed him a seven figure deal with Columbia. In 2019, Fader was positioning Fike as ready to be extremely famous, “one hook at a time.” The interview recounted Dominic Fike’s arrest for battery of an officer, and subsequent house arrest, which Fike partly credits as “the only reason I ended up making that tape.” It was a perfect budding pop-star story: a troubled young man catches an unexpected and massive break via fallout from punching a cop.

“3 Nights” had the spirit of an artist finding their voice, wherein that voice had the lovely lilt of summer nights and memories made and lost. The single positioned Fike as a new face in the crowded Florida music scene of the late 2010s, but instead of ballistic raps and dubious emotionalism, Fike’s single dealt with the shape of absence after a one-night stand. With millions of streams and views across YouTube videos, it remains the defining song of Dom’s career.

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In 2020, with his star rising after linking with everyone from ultra-online and beloved boyband-cum-rap group BROCKHAMPTON to eclectic craftsman Kenny Beats, the littoral crooner had been stamped as a force in music well beyond the reach of social media. Then Fike released his formal debut album, What Could Possibly Go Wrong. Perhaps a riff on Fike’s loose self-awareness, the debut played more like a label rushing to capitalize on their cash machine, rather than a body of work meant to encapsulate a compelling life story. The album was not exactly critically appreciated, and it was largely uneven. Though he wasn’t outright chasing the fire of “3 Nights,” he wasn’t exactly summoning a new and equally interesting fire, either. The album fell flat and was, by my estimation, largely forgotten.

For my part, “3 Nights” is a song I’d describe as a “once-a-week-dream.” Meaning, it’s a song that I listen to with such rabid frequency, I map it onto almost every key memory in my life. When I first heard “3 Nights,” I was living in a shoddy apartment in South Jersey, and my potentially false memories suggest my A/C had just caught fire. I had to fight with the property manager for summer justice. The town I was in was one of those whose main attraction was a single main street with a decrepit theater and a kitschy Mexican restaurant. I felt lost and out of place constantly during my 15 months there, but I was still dedicated to chronicling those memories, no matter how painfully mundane they appeared. When I heard “3 Nights” for the first time, it was as though Fike had a similar mission on his hands. He seemed to write to remember.

There was something undeniable about the words, “Call me what you want, when you want, if you want / And you can call me names if you call me up.” On “3 Nights,” Fike managed to distill the post-summer-breakup desperation that everyone feels at least once in their life (I hope it really does build character). His obvious yearning was upheld by an effortless cool. The song was a towering display of making the most emo of lyrics sound enticing. And though What Could Possibly Go Wrong was missing such an elemental balancing act, I held out hope.

Earlier this month, Dominic Fike released Sunburn, which by all accounts should have been his debut album. To my ears, Sunburn is magnificent. On the titular track, Dom reveals more about himself than all of his formal debut combined: “Southern Florida, I was raised in the sun… Mama went to jail, we was hungry / I’m on this music… When I die, baby, lay me in the sun.” Sunburn reveals Dom as a student of himself. He evidently learned from the hollows of What Could Possibly Go Wrong, and brought a new awareness of what made the Don’t Forget About Me, Demos so strong. Here, he’s crafted an album that’s both highly personal and listenable. It follows a breakout moment on the hit show euphoria and the disconcerting quality of sudden fame for a young man who would just like to be a regular f*cking person, who so happens to be hugely famous now. Talk of drug treatment and foul play in relationships on “Dark,” for instance, sees Fike shearing off his cool exterior to showcase that he just isn’t shit.

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When Fike released the single “Ant Pile” earlier this year, I heard rumblings of what would be fulfilled on Sunburn. He was finally reaching into a post-“3 Nights” future, one where the love song was warped into something specifically personal but with that broad pop appeal necessary to give a track legs beyond those who identify as Dominic Fike fans. “Ant Pile” felt like opening up a box of film slides and flipping through memories that were not quite yours, but close enough to count. With that, Sunburn sees Dom chiefly concerned with two things: talking about life and love in Southern Florida, and righting the ship of his sonic enterprise. These songs are warm and tender (“Pasture Child”), spry and carnal (“Frisky”).

Where the previous record had no solid sonic identity outside of the upbeat singles, Sunburn sees Dominic leaning into the instrumentality of his voice. He layers his vocals in a way such that his singing, as in, the material of his writing being pronounced, and the aural joy of his voice as a line in the DAW, thread together into something new. On Sunburn, Dom is driving the record from his chest, anchoring it with his body. On the Saturday after the album released, I poured myself scotch whisky and paced around the room listening to Sunburn. Muttering to myself between sips, I understood the album to be a direct evolution of the way “3 Nights” became a fever-pitched exercise in turning terrible memories—Dom visits the motel that inspired the life-changing single in an Apple Music documentary, and quickly leaves, evidently emotionally overloaded—into traveling hooks.

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Sunburn works because in the three years between albums, even though a majority of the record are “old songs,” Dominic Fike realized his whole thing is not to make plays at big, sweeping choruses – even if those can be quite nice. The album thrives because it makes sunbleached memories new again. We’re thumbing through faded Polaroids, old slides, negatives spilling out of moving boxes. The end of “Dark” features an exchange that hinges on Fike’s voice breaking through, saying, “I remember… ” Now, Fike can look towards the future. As he explained to Zane Lowe numerous times during their 50-minute taped trip to Naples, FL, he is very ready to move on.

Memory is inherently personal, but the collective human experience is wider than any of us would like to admit. We want to feel special, but we also want to feel seen. On Sunburn, Dominic Fike achieves both of these sentiments when he sings “we’re not so different, in fact” on “Bodies.” Fike writes to remember, and he writes to take the power away from the hardest of memories. Sunburn is weather worn and fresh all at once. At times, it sounds like waking up on the first morning of a long vacation, but never does Fike let things get too comfortable. He reveals himself as a practitioner of that one sobering line that makes the listener stand up at attention. These minute details, depictions of juvie and poverty spliced between baking guitar chords, make for a fuller album experience. “I was screaming, feel the strain in my lungs,” Fike delivers on “Sunburn,” with the ultimate effect of impressing that he is, for the first time in his career, fully present.

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