Two years after becoming one of the most polarizing names in pop with Born This Way, Lady Gaga is back with Artpop! But is it a return to form or too much art, not enough pop? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "Aura" (3:55)
2. "Venus" (3:53)
3. "G.U.Y." (3:52)
4. "Sexxx Dreams" (3:34)
5. "Jewels n' Drugs" (ft. T.I., Too Short and Twista) (3:48)
6. "Manicure" (3:19)
7. "Do What U Want" (ft. R. Kelly) (3:47)
8. "Artpop" (4:07)
9. "Swine" (4:28)
10. "Donatella" (4:24)
11. "Fashion!" (3:59)
12. "Mary Jane Holland" (4:37)
13. "Dope" (3:41)
14. "Gypsy" (4:08)
15. "Applause" (3:32)
It's not difficult to imagine that Lady Gaga may be the most polarizing artist working in pop music today. The New York City native earned a legion of devoted fans and an equally large horde of critics since the meteoric rise that came with 2008's The Fame. Singles like "Just Dance," "Poker Face" and "LoveGame" put her name in the mainstream and attracted critical acclaim for its blending of pop elements and its lyrical content about fame obsession. But of course it was her provocative public image--punctuated by such incidents as her bloody performance at the 2009 Video Music Awards and her infamous "meat dress" at the same show a year later--which has served as the greatest lightning rod for attention. Some point to these antics as crafty moves that serve as both artistic expression and publicity stunts; others consider them pretentious and crass, a sign that the pop star as become the very Fame Monster she explored on The Fame's follow-up EP.
Whichever the case, Gaga has never been more divisive than with her second LP, 2011's Born This Way. With the power of a commercial juggernaut, Gaga set her mind toward a new direction. The result was an album which took off commercially but divided both fans and critics; while the intentions were good and the production strong, the album's lyrics were seen as lacking and a couple of tracks were particularly noted as similar to Madonna's works. There was more than a little theorizing that the singer had fallen into the trap of her own self-importance. Gaga has had a difficult time in the last couple of years, facing both backlash from fans and critics over her antics and suffering through both legal issues (a lawsuit by her former personal assistant) and physical ones (a labral tear of her right hip). She has returned now with the much-hyped Artpop, which hits stores tomorrow in the hopes that the artist find a return to form.
Gaga has described Artpop as an album whose concept is right there in its title; the merging of art and pop music. This isn't new for Gaga; she proclaimed that Born This Way would attempt to redefine pop music as well. She certainly takes that path further on this one than she did on her previous though; the singer is both co-writer and producer on every track on the album, something that you can't say for a lot of pop singers out there. This can often be a double-edged sword; while on one hand Gaga has more control over her album, she also has the chance of going ever further over the edge. But that's a necessary risk if she wishes to reinvent herself and in all fairness to her, this does seem to an attempt to strip the personas down and cut down on the theatricality. Gaga gets right to that with the first track, "Aura," in which she asks, "Do you want to see wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?" But she isn't done combining experimentation with sex appeal; the song starts off with a mariachi sound before devolving into a soup of electro-pop for the choruses in which the singer calls herself a "woman of choice" and makes references to Middle Eastern veils and burqas. All the while the chorus is disco-influenced dance-pop. It's a dizzying and sometimes jarring mix of genres but on the whole, it works because of its sheer audaciousness.
That previous sentence is an apt description of many songs on the album. The second track, "Venus," was intended to be the second single but was switched out at the last second. And that may have been wise; it's simply too ostentatious for a single. The whole thing takes a stab at a Bowie-like space epic in the form of a love song; while it doesn't do itself any favors with awkward lyrics like "Have an oyster, baby, itís aphrod-isy/act sleazy" or the counting of the planets into that becomes a fifth-grade playground joke with "Uranus/Donít you know my ass is famous?," the production work has a great dance sound that will play very well in clubs. Gaga never lets up at any particular moment with her wacky concepts and injections of weird thematic elements; on "G.U.Y." she starts off with what sounds like some sort of new age cult audio indoctrination tape before kicking into a song that is seems to hearken back to her hits on The Fame. Gaga plays around with the concepts of male and female here, as G.U.Y. becomes "girl under you" and G.I.R.L. is (assumedly) "guy in real life." Or perhaps it's just girl. That's the point of the track; it's gender-twisting and makes the distinction between gender equality and sexual power games without the need to be "Born This Way" blatant. And that makes it quite the enjoyable pop listen.
The pure pop songs are the ones that work best on Artpop; on "Sexx Dreams" she sings about trying to arrange a clandestine meeting with someone who already has a significant other and the song's disco, synthpop pleasures mix with a distinctly R-rated set of lyrics without sounding trashy. "MANiCURE" uses a touch of rock influence and handclaps to keep things popping through the middle of the LP as Gaga asks to be "Man-i-cured." And her collaboration with R. Kelly is a gem, with dark synths mixing with R&B for pure dance-pop bliss. Kelly himself sounds better than he has on any of his own songs in quite a while and he melds wonderfully with the updated 70s-esque groove.
Unfortunately not everything hits on this one. While "Aura" is a little jarring in how it juxtaposes her art and her pop, it mostly works; conversely the first true dud is the most obvious one. Gaga teamed up with T.I., Too Short and Twista on "Jewels n' Drugs," a bizarre rap effort in which Gaga throws her old themes of fame addiction into a hip-hop blender. It's an interesting experiment but Gaga singing over a crunk track doesn't just fail; it crashes and burns. And the rappers joining her don't add much of anything to the track with the exception of Twista's warp nine-paced final verse. Another one that falls a bit flat (though not as much as "Jewels n' Drugs") is the title track, which borrows far too much from 80s synthpop without updating it and relying on the refrain "Artpop could mean anything." It's an example of Gaga's pretention getting a little too out of control. And on "Swine" she goes in a distinctly angrier direction as she unleashes her wrath on an animal in her life. The sounds in this one work more often than they don't but all in all it just seems a bit too "been there, done that."
Luckily Gaga gets back on track before the album is done with, particularly with inspired numbers like "Fashion!," "Dope" and "Applause." The first of those tracks is very high-concept; it plays out exactly as you might expect from its title. It's an example of where Gaga can take a particular era of music and, when she's on her game, turn it into a thoroughly modern-sounding track. This one isn't about anything deep or important, and that frees it up so that it can be fun. "Dope" is a torch song in which she equates her emotional need for a man with addiction. It's not a new topic but Gaga belts it out with passion over a restrained piano accompaniment that only serves to make her histrionics more effective. And of course there is "Applause," the opening single in which she manages to combine substance and sound quite effectively. Gaga pricks her own ego a little here as she notes the modern-day obsession with celebrity and fame, and notes that she isn't any more immune than anyone else. It makes for a strong end to the album.
Standout Tracks: "G.U.Y.," "Sexx Dreams," ""Do What U Want," Dope," "Applause"
Skippable: "Jewels n' Drugs," "Artpop," "Swine"
The 411: Lady Gaga's goal on Artpop was to show that pop music could be considered a higher level of art, and while the goal is ambitious it can't be said that she truly succeeded. However, that's not to say that the album isn't worth your time. When Gaga lets the dance-pop elements breath she's as good at the genre as any mainstream artist in the game and she's quickly finding her experimental niche with bringing different pop subgenres together. Sure, there are a few misfires but they don't torpedo the whole album. If Gaga had included less art and more pop, Artpop could have been in the running for pop album of the year. Instead she'll have to settle for an album that is "merely" quite good and should prove to be another commercial juggernaut.