ALBUM REVIEW: Lady Gaga – Artpop

Artpop artwork
Artpop artwork

ARTIST Lady Gaga

ALBUM Artpop

LABEL Interscope

RELEASE DATE 11 November 2013

6.6 | 10

There was a time when the music world revolved around Lady Gaga. Her blend of wild theatrics and catchy pop songs, all held together by a mysterious persona, created a perfect storm that resulted in Gaga dominating radio and iTunes for the good part of two years. In her wake, other female pop artists including (but not limited to) Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha all tried to “out Gaga” Gaga, to uneven results. But something happened during the prerelease cycle for Gaga’s second LP Born This Way (2011) that thwarted her attempts at another era of radio domination. Adele had just released the cultural landmark 21, and its simplistic and honest performances were the complete antithesis to Gaga’s hyperbolic bombast. That has put Gaga in a precarious situation going into her third studio LP, Artpop, as she is no longer pop music’s “It girl,” she no longer commands the headlines she once did, and she’s no longer the mysterious new girl on the scene. The funny thing about having these expectations diminished is that it has helped liberate Gaga to the point where Artpop is a definitive step-up from Born This Way, and on the same level as her 2008 breakthrough The Fame.

Gaga has always been at her best when she’s playing with gender conventions, such as on “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams.” Gaga explains that she wants be your guy on “G.U.Y.,” which in Gagaphonics means “girl under you.” Instead of critiquing fame or supporting gay rights, “G.U.Y.” and second single “Do What U Want” focus on themes of female empowerment through sex. They both hit on those themes by reaching for the lowest common denominator, forgoing the highbrow critique found on The Knife’s excellent Shaking The Habitual. But then again, Gaga isn’t trying to shake up the habitual, despite her eye-rolling claims of Artpop being a “reverse Warholian experience.” Whereas Andy Warhol was known for “pop art,” taking different aspects of pop culture and delivering them in artistic ways, Gaga seems to be espousing that Artpop uses art to shape her pop hits. That notion rings more than a little hollow when hearing lyrics such as “When I lay in bed I touch myself and think of you,” (which occurs on the future #1 single “Sexxx Dreams”) and “I want your money / Want your love” on Gaga’s turn towards hip-hop with “Jewels n’ Drugs.” But just because these songs aren’t exactly the aural equivalents of a Picasso or Degas doesn’t mean they don’t work as solid and relatively interesting mainstream pop songs. They are just nonsensical enough to become mind-numbing, and offer ridiculous moments in spades that deriding them seems like an exercise in futility.

This being Lady Gaga, there are bound to be some curveballs thrown in every now and then. And not all of them are exactly gracefully executed. On the one hand, there’s “Aura,” which begins with Gaga’s gargled vocals confessing to killing her lover and leaving her in a trunk on the side of the road, before its mariachi guitars melt into a pounding and gargantuan Zedd production. As horrific as it sounds on paper, it’s the unexpected turns of the song that is essential Gaga, resulting in one of the better left-field moments here. “Venus” on the other hand, produced by Gaga herself, delivers one of the most bizarre bridges on Artpop, with Gaga summoning the planets Sailor Moon style, while rhyming Uranus with her shouting, “Don’t you know my ass is famous?” Throughout Artpop, Gaga tiptoes the line between compelling and embarrassing, and “Venus” falls firmly in the latter’s camp. “Manicure” and “Swine” are Gaga’s attempts at blending rock ‘n roll and EDM into a coherent whole, yet both fail equally. They are just as clunky as the album title, and both stretch Gaga to her thinnest.

Gaga’s choice of collaborators are an inspired lot, forgoing some of the more obvious choices in lieu of artists who better fit each song’s style. “Jewels n’ Drugs,” a hip-hop/EDM banger, features rap heavyweights T.I., Too $hort and Twista, and DJ White Shadow’s production here is his best. The beat is tailored for each artist, switching subtly for every verse, while ultimately sounding like equal parts in a greater whole. Gaga allows her guests to shine, while also getting in a short rap verse for herself, and she expresses her love for the devil’s parsley. “I admit my habit’s expensive / And you may find it quite offensive,” she nonchalantly raps. You can almost see the smoke signal she’s sending out to Rihanna. “Do What You Want” features R. Kelly in prime form, and his presence is felt throughout the track, as he’s an active participant instead of a passive observer. “I can be the drink in your cup / I can be the green in your blunt,” Kells confidently coos, delivering one of the biggest highlights of Artpop. She also somewhat surprisingly enlisted the services of one will.i.am on “Fashion!,” which even more surprisingly is another of Artpop’s best moments. It’s refrain of “Lookin’ good and feelin’ fine” will reverberate throughout next summer.

As much as Gaga may influence other pop singers, the influence of others is felt on Artpop as well. The female worship anthem “Donatella” features a chorus in the vein of Icona Pop, with its bratty self-confidence bringing to mind their hit “I Love It.” And as grandiose as Artpop is, the most moving moment comes during its quietest. “Dope” is a piano ballad not dissimilar to Rihanna’s early 2013 hit “Stay,” and is one of Gaga’s strongest ballads, rivaling The Fame Monster’s “Speechless.” “I’m sorry that I love you,” she painstakingly and restlessly sings. “I’ll keep searching for an answer / Cause I need you more than dope,” she sings later, at the end of her line. It’s intentionally unpretty, and a reminder of what Gaga is capable of “behind the aura.”

For every two steps forward Artpop takes, it also takes a step back, with “The Edge of Glory” clone “Gypsy” and the lyrically inane “Applause” being two of the least inspired tracks here. They’ll probably be the album’s biggest hits, too. It’s also telling that this far into her career, Gaga’s best release remains her The Fame Monster EP, by far the briefest in her catalogue. Her LPs have all been hampered by a lack of any filtration system, with her worst impulses finding placement next to her best material. That Artpop isn’t any different in that regard is a little disheartening. But then I remember that for an artist with no intention other than being #1, an album like Artpop is definitely a risk. Should it catch on like her debut, the rewards will certainly make it all worth it.

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