Sunday, June 18, 2017

Melodrama | Lorde

At just 16 years old, Lorde found a way to actualize her thoughts, worries, and dreams in words more elegant than some 40 years her senior could muster. In place of feeding tired visions of hypersexual teenage dreams, she immortalized the vivid teenage experience. Her 2013 debut album, Pure Heroine, validates the contradictory swirl of angst and wonder through striking realism. Its statements on the unknown, like ultimate fate and immortality, resonate with the teenagers of suburbia, whose everyday lives pale in comparison to the dreams that a fame-driven society has cultivated in them.

She was known for being the most composed teenager in existence – as the girl who spent more time dissecting her life than living it. But as her visions of unrealistic fame were actualized, the gridlocked fears of her fate cleared from the forefront of consciousness. We now see a Lorde who learned to cope with life on its face – who is ready to stop thinking about living and finally just do it. On the first taste of Melodrama, a track that overtakes Lorde in an unexpected rush of urgency, she cries, "Oh, I wish I could get my things and just let go. I'm waiting for it, that green light. I want it." 

And with that she plea, she lets loose, abandoning the worries of her teenage years. She has grown into a charismatic young woman, cracking open her own reservations and granting herself the liberty to act her age. The scrapbook of someone who dipped her toes into adulthood with the luxurious excesses attached to a celebrity status at her disposal, Melodrama's narrative reveals Lorde did a bit of it all in the four years between studio albums: The drinks, the parties, the love. In fact, the only thing the album fails to mention is the secret Instagram account dedicated to onion rings.

Swapping Joel Little for Jack Antonoff in the executive producer's seat, she joins the party instead of rebelling against it. Who was once a girl tired of being told to put her hands up in the air is now the dance commander, spilling the beats of her very heart into pools of roaring bass tones: "Megaphone to my chest, broadcast the boom, boom, boom, boom and make 'em dance to it," she declares on "The Louvre," signaling a round of ground-shaking beats. Likewise, she unleashes the jolting production that should be expected of a track titled "Homemade Dynamite," which embodies the hottest moments of Lorde's four-year house party.

Even amid the best moments of drunken ecstasy under the flashing disco lights, she's self-aware: "Bet you wish you could touch our rush, but what will we do when we're sober?" she spits out with a seductive edge over a steady jungle beat and clipped horn samples on "Sober." In the slumps of the mornings after, though, she has a chance to look in the mirror  a sight that becomes uncomfortable. The first loves and first tastes of freedom aren't without the first heartbreaks and first rock bottoms, chronicled here on complementary piano ballads "Liability" and "Writer in the Dark." Their open spaces leave ample room for Lorde's self-confrontational words to resonate: "I understand, I'm a liability. Get you wild, make you leave. I'm a little much for everyone."

By the time she comes down from her alcohol-fueled, sexually experimental, party-hard high, she's spit right back to the place she was: on a bed by herself, with only her thoughts to keep her company. "All the nights spent off our faces, trying to find these perfect places. What the fuck are perfect places anyway?" she ponders through a chorus of her own multitracked vocal lines, as she realizes she jumped overboard in the name of escapism; In pursuit of blissful ignorance, she revolted against the societal problems over which she obsessed on her debut. In both this mindset and the sonic output of this record, she dances dangerously close with the thought of becoming one of the pack – only to come to her senses at the close of her story.

In many ways, "Perfect Places" puts the rest of the record into perspective: Melodrama is much more than a sonic overhaul or a personal metamorphosis for Lorde. It's just as potent as its predecessor in the sense that it paints the consequences that Pure Heroine's overthinking entails. As the teenage years fade and the real world presents itself, life begins traveling faster than we can think about it – and the little time of enjoyment we get becomes more important than the reasoning behind our desire to run from reality, something that we know is inescapable. It grounds us again when dawn breaks, consuming us at our most vulnerable moments.

But the memories of the careless nights are forever captured within this record. And hell, what liberating times they were. 

Melodrama is out now under Republic Records.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Witness | Katy Perry

Pop music often shapes culture without much of a thought given to its implications; sex, love, and drugs sell, so it's sex, love, and drugs that we most often get from the biggest names in music. Accompanying the subjects are high-gloss electronics, a belting vocalist, and a melody so infectious that the whole country ignites with the song's chorus at every moment for three months, chanting some drivel adorned with ear candy. And on most days, we're fine with that.

But in the past decade, a new form of pop music has begun to rear its head – one that values album-wide story arcs and attempts a voyeuristic, third-party view on popular culture, as if it were immune to affecting or being affected by the society in which it exists. These projects often take the form of overwrought, outlandish concept albums, but it seems that the albums that try to do the most end up stumbling over the false expectations of its results. The ones without distinct means and ends, existing only as the product of a focused vision rather than the cramped showcase for an overarching, ill-executed artistic vision, are the ones that prove pop music can be much more than frivolous entertainment.

After having spent three album cycles with her head caught in clouds of cartoon fruit and cotton candy clouds, Katy Perry seemed like an unlikely candidate to pull out an over-calculated era of social consciousness. But it shouldn't be so hard to imagine that one of the biggest contributors to the media noise could try to elevate herself above it – many pop stars have a "come to Jesus" moment in their careers during which they realize their platforms can be used to incite change, then overcompensate for past sins. It is strange, however, to see a woman traditionally known for wild success fall so hard during her awaited moment.

When "Chained to the Rhythm" was unleashed at the nose of this album cycle, the new Katy Perry was impressively posed and self-aware. Utilizing a popular ironic approach to social commentary, it hypnotizes listeners with a looped neo-disco sample, despite its own warnings against the attraction to an arbitrary beat. Nevertheless, conscious lyrics stacked with a complementary music video and televised live performance strengthened her case and projected a positive trajectory for Perry's newest chapter. Her "woke pop" was slowly solidifying itself into what could have been the best move of her career.

But before the concept could be concreted, too many hands were given security clearance to the cranial controls and her ego got in the way, shifting the focal point of Perry's third eye. Instead of looking outwards on Witness as she promised, she shrinks her world, becoming more focused on herself. Just three single releases in, for example, Perry entangled herself in a feud with Taylor Swift that most everybody thought was over two years ago. And by the time the full album is halfway through, it becomes quite apparent that what was supposed to be her era of "purposeful pop" has been clouded with out-and-proud reminders that she still wants to reign supreme as a pop star, no more and no less.

There are times when these hyperartistic passion projects are adorned with lyrical themes and album-wide concepts that are too complex to be pushed to a mass market – Lady Gaga's unloved stepchild, ARTPOP, comes to mind. Not many people, especially in the radio-listening pool toward which big names in music traditionally cater, want to be required to complete hours of research and lyrical analysis to understand pop tracks. But other times, their creators are too protected to be told that they're a bit more ignorant, and a little less elegantly spoken, than they believe they are. Perry is one of those artists. We're forced to chain ourselves to the rhythms here, because grasping onto the lyrics results in a fistful of "Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck," "Make me ripple 'til I'm wavy," and "You don't have to subtweet me."

To fill the voids of the the album's lyrics, Perry padded the album with supercharged production talent. Dr. Luke is absent for obvious reasons and longtime collaborator Bonnie McKee unexpectedly sits this one out, but the remaining members of the army (the foolproof dream team of Max Martin and Ali Payami, Mike WiLL Made-It, and strangely enough, electronic duo Purity Ring) drown Perry in a glimmering pool of dance-pop, influenced in part by vintage gay nightclub bangers ("Swish Swish," "Déjà Vu") and in another part by visions of futuristic mid-tempo house ("Mind Maze," "Tsunami"). The glossy beats make for alluring distractions from an album that was supposed to focus on substance – but they're distractions nonetheless.

The album's armor of production shields its weak lyrics and presents the front of a standard pop album, and if the album's main selling point had been its sonic evolution, the output wouldn't have been put under the microscope. But Perry's false projection of a revolutionary take on pop music renders Witness an ignorant, disappointing statement, and it's a shame, because she very well could have pulled it off – even with her level of grace in lyrical presence. Of all tracks, even "Bon Appetit," had it been marketed as such, could have been passed off as a cheesy revelation of the status quo for females' radical body standards and sexualization in the media. Instead, Katy Perry did exactly what she aimed not to do this time around: She made a Katy Perry record, a senseless noisemaker and certified guilty pleasure.

Witness is available now under Capitol Records.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom | Halsey

Two years ago, a blue-haired Halsey was on track to unleash her own dystopia through a debut concept album, Badlands. Executive produced by her ex-boyfriend Lido, the album found itself at number two on the Billboard 200 thanks to Halsey's army of a cult following. Because she was atop the viral pop pyramid that stands on an anti-airwaves platform, not even a clairvoyant could have predicted that a feature with two frat boy figures on a trend-conforming dance track would dwarf her existing success and shift the trajectory of her career.

Since the record-breaking, culture-encompassing success of "Closer," Halsey has thickened her Rolodex with connections to the biggest of today's popular music producers and songwriters. In turn, although her albums are to be conjoining concept albums, her sophomore record, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is far more than a few blocks away from Badlands. With production and co-writing credits given to Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco, Sia Furler, and Justin Tranter, this album dances between contemporary trends and Halsey's dark alternative pop roots.

Oozing warm, dusky undertones, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom sizzles like a pile of warm embers, kept glowing by her smoky vocal grit and swaying clicks of electronic percussion. Missing, however, are sparks to reignite these tracks into the ear-grabbing bonfires that made her last album an alluring listen. Her production has been stripped and reconstructed, substituting lush bouquets of synthesizers for something that more closely aligns with radio pop's flavor of the day: trap-tinged rhythm and blues. "Now or Never," for example, casts Halsey as Rihanna's first cousin, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the song shares a co-writer with "Needed Me," and a track co-signed by The Weeknd, "Eyes Closed," sounds like a toss-out from his own album.

The fundamentals of Halsey are still intact, but she does show signs of natural artistic evolution. She still slurs her way through sonic wastelands, like when dodging between the bubbling beats of "100 Letters" or layered with a syrupy vocoder on the Cashmere Cat-assisted "Hopeless," but she has learned the almighty power of the belt, deployed like a fighter jet on "Bad at Love" and "Alone." And have no fear: the forced lyrical edge is still there. (For the strongest doses of that, take a hit of "Don't Play," composed almost entirely of a skittering beat drop and the repetition of "motherfucker, don't play with me." So don't play with her. Got it?)

In anticipation of this album, she was nothing if not clear in her intentions: She had her sights set on radio pop, and to accomplish it, she studied and worked with the latest trendsetters. The problem lies in the fact that she was once a calculated product of a post-Lana Del Rey universe, heavily influenced by the popular baroque pop that took viral platforms by storm a few years back. No matter the quality of her output, her jump from one popular trend to the next projects an impression of a reactive artist who shows up to the club only after the cool kids endorse it, not a proactive one who is willing to trek into new territories on her own volition.

Regardless, Halsey is still completely, unabashedly Halsey, be that for the better or for the worse. Drama in the highest degree is still her most exercised artistic skill. This concept album's loose storyboard knits a Shakespeare staple into patchwork of angst, modern misadventure, and sexual exploration – narrated in that husky voice, slurred with nuanced enunciation. It all makes for the relatively enjoyable Halserian experience we expected, but the level of thrill attached to her brand of escapism just isn't quite as intoxicating the second time around.

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom will be available on June 2, 2017, under Astralwerks Records.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dua Lipa | Dua Lipa

The first chapter of Dua Lipa's career has been stretched thin. Fanned across a period of almost two years, it has been comprised of rapid-fire single releases, small headlining tours, and album delays. Through it all, the world remained perched for the grand debut of Dua Lipa, a eponymous debut album that she now refers to as #DL1. But in that time, it seems that Lipa has become a different form of pop artist than she set her sights on a few years ago – one who prefers to be a Jill of all genres rather than a master of one. And despite the biweekly meltdowns among her fans that say otherwise, it turns out that her evolution is far from disappointing.

Admittedly, Lipa's image has skittered from what once was. Her earliest pieces paint her as the next face of "dark pop," an obscure classification of alternative pop reserved for female vocalists who are even slightly difficult for music journalists to classify, but newer singles like "Hotter Than Hell" – the tropical house banger to end all tropical house bangers, mind you – and "Lost in Your Light" push her into the throne as the queen of the club, complete with a Sean Paul collaboration up her sleeve. Bridging the gap is, of course, underground single turned overnight success "Be The One," the song that seemed to spark Lipa's desire to capitalize on her potential to the extent that she has. But now, all of these sides to Dua Lipa – and quite a few more – are presented in a kaleidoscopic fashion, swirled in the focus of what is to be a singular body of work.

Now in our hands, Lipa's album wears her coat of many colors. As it runs its course, it feels a bit like a comprehensive scrapbook, pasted together with love and care to immortalize the past two years of her growth and musical experimentation. It follows every shade of Dua Lipa that we've already heard, from the moodiness of the acoustic-based "Thinkin' Bout You" to her "Blow Your Mind" confidence, but with a handful of new tracks and bangers aplenty, it manages to land just shy of feeling redundant or tiresome – even as an album that touts two tracks with narrow lyrical roots in the Book of Genesis. (And actually, those two tracks complement each other nicely. The album's opening track, "Genesis," bounces with the giddiness of complete happiness at the conception of a relationship, while "Garden" realizes the irreconcilable trouble that lurks below the guise of paradise.)

Although they are of a far different period in Lipa's short musical lifespan, her earliest tracks radiate a certain glow, having yet to go stale. Her new tracks, then, complete the rainbow of variety in her repertoire and bring fresh energy to what would otherwise feel like a greatest hits compilation. She's red hot on "New Rules," bouncing her voice in the rhythm of a hyper house beat as she warns herself to avoid past mistakes with a manipulative man, and on "Begging," bleeding her jubilation associated with a new love over a chorus that is too good not to break down in a drum-and-vocal-only bridge. (Spoiler alert: That breakdown happens. And it's great.) And by the end of the album, in a moment when she's pensive and blue, she delivers the piano ballad that every mainstream-aiming pop album is obligated to house – and it's doozy, featuring songwriting and unaccredited vocals from the increasingly less elusive Chris Martin.

If nothing else, the album reveals that Dua Lipa is a self-aware artist – a pop artist. In turn, as a pop artist, she delivered a standard pop album in many aspects, ignoring the pressures of cohesiveness and album-wide storytelling. And spare perhaps a faulty moment of judgement during which she thought it was a good idea to give a song the trendy acronym title "IDGAF," her unrestrained creativity doesn't lead her down any disastrous avenues. But more importantly, she's also a very human artist, with an alluring debut album that mirrors not only her musical interests that encompass every star and moon of the pop music universe, but also her exploration as to her place within that universe. She may not have found the answer to the latter just yet, but at least now, she knows that there are good chances that she could stick the landing no matter which way she jumps.

Dua Lipa is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lost on You | LP

Upon first listen to her dingy spaghetti western of an album, it's hard to imagine that singer-songwriter LP has managed to swing some writing credits in albums from some of the biggest names of mainstream pop. In the past ten years, she's found her name in the listings for albums from Rihanna, Cher, and the Backstreet Boys – well, 2007 Backstreet Boys, not the top-of-their-game 1999 Backstreet Boys, but I digress.

Then again, it's hard to believe that the title track of Lost on You lit up airwaves across Europe last year. With its humid guitar strums, heavy beats, and singalong melody line, "Lost on You" is the sticky embodiment of what to expect from its parent album. Though it's an earworm of a song, its ignorance of current radio trends makes it an unlikely candidate to top the charts in a flurry of countries.

But if stripped of the refreshing production tactics that give her the illusion of singing from amid a slew of desert heat haze, LP is a pop songwriter through-and-through. She knows how to complement the most defining features of her shrill soprano voice – its raggedness in lower parts of its range, its strength through higher belts, and its ability to cut through all sonic environments. She proves time and time again that her voice is a force to be reckoned with, from her cutting wails over the bellows of the haunting "Muddy Waters" to the nonchalant, conversational delivery of "Death Valley."

While she may have knack for pop – and an appreciation for it, at that, as she name-checks songs from Shakira and Britney Spears on "When We're High" – all-out powerhouse pop really isn't where her heart resides: she's really a rock 'n roll spirit with pop smarts. Her record, while a pop one, is a pop one masqueraded with a crossbreed of sonic influences, pulling from '70s rock, western, folk, and modern alternative pop – and apparently, that's the formula for success.

Lost on You is available now under Vagrant Records.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

After Laughter | Paramore

Paramore isn't exactly the same band you lived vicariously through in middle school any longer.

Since the band's debut in 2005, its moniker might have been its only stable element. Its member roster has been crushed and rebuilt time after time amid storms of rapid-fire allegations hurled at Hayley Williams – that she's lax in her Christianity, that she's the only member of the band contractually bound to Atlantic Records to ensure she's the sole star of the Parashow, that she weaseled a member out of promised songwriting royalties... The list goes on. In essence, the band has spent most of its lifespan caught up in, well, itself.

But through it all, Paramore has survived – even if barely – as has Williams – again, even if barely. Once known for hair dyed such bright colors that it could be considered an outright visual assault on passersby, Williams now dons a head of hair that shares a color tone with bleached flour. Stripped of her high-gloss personality coating, she becomes more believable than ever before when tapping into genuine pain. Her newest reincarnation comes not to release a few years of pent-up teenage angst, but instead to reflect on her anxiety and depression as the band imploded in the palm of her hand yet again between this record and the last.

Grasping onto a newfound maturity, she backtracks on plenty of past lyrical staples, relying heavily on references to the band's first four records as she claims to have killed the last fraction of her optimism and become the type of unrealistic, daydreaming escapist that she once criticized. But Williams' attitude isn't the only element that has taken a turn; the band has ditched its roots altogether – the pop-punk ones that the band had already started to cut away with 2013's transitional self-titled record – in favor of agreeable pop on its face, a new trend that has swept across acts that once prided themselves on a certain level of viral counterculture status.

The changes serve their purpose, though, reviving a band that was on the brink of folding for good. Rehashing what has already been done would only gash open the half-healed wounds, so the band walks another avenue, locking eyes on survival but keeping the past in the periphery. While that means a seemingly drastic change for listeners, the product still seems familiar because the successful juxtaposition of Williams' grief with the fizzling pop sparks roughly equates to the same basic principle upon which Paramore was founded: barreling through the pain via song, even if that means plastering on a smile but allowing the stretched threads of a band in crisis show through.

After Laughter is available now under Fueled by Ramen.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ralph | Ralph

There's something about Canadian singer-songwriter Ralph that gives her the front of being simultaneously trendy and timeless. The magic is sparked when her voice, an admirable, pop-oriented echo of Stevie Nicks' pipes, meets her light, bouncing production, spiked with the same sensibility as the fuzzy, upbeat pop music that accompanied decades-old shopping mall commercials. When those two elements come together on the six tracks of Ralph's eponymous debut extended play, the product beams like the sun on a warm July afternoon.

Across the extended play, she teeters the line between commitment and indecisiveness in love. "Tease," a florescent highlight fueled by the undertones of a slinky '70s rhythm machine and a shimmering beat, finds her exposing a cheater after the promise of a ring, yet she does the heartbreaking herself when an urge for utter independence takes control on "Cold to the Touch" and "Something More."

In short, Ralph is an abridged profile of a young woman who struggles to decide whether she craves the hopeful fulfillment of monogamous love or the ecstasy found in being young and free of any ties to another. It plays out through infectious melodies and over the glossy bounce of retro-flavored pop music, leaving a sugary aftertaste and the desire for another fix. And luckily, this is only the beginning.

Ralph is available now under Wednesday Management.