Ke$ha, Alicia Keys
She’s tweeted a pic of her dildo “boyfriend” and written songs about getting drunk, stripping naked and getting hit on by old dudes. But Ke$ha’s 15 minutes aren’t over. With 12 songs that stretch her once-limited scope of dance music – both her debut and its follow-up, the Cannibal EP, underwent so much post-production vocal manipulation she was more robotic than a robot – Warrior is a game-changer for the polarizing party girl. Now, her voice is raw – and she’s using it to reveal more than late-night binge drinking. “Die Young” is the kind of celebratory live-before-you-can’t-anymore song that gave her a name, but even then, there’s an unassuming maturity: She’s young but not blind to her own mortality. It’s a recurring theme. Self-empowering reckless abandon runs through “Crazy Kids” like it wants to lure Gaga’s Little Monsters. The whistling is definitely in Ke$ha’s favor. “Love into the Light” has “for the gays” written all over it. It’s a dear-diary song until the chorus, when it surges from dark-alley confessional into an ’80s power ballad that asks us to “forget about the hate.” That chorus is one of the best things I’ve heard all year. Hell, the entire album is, from The Strokes cameo on “Only Wanna Dance With You” to demystifying the fairy-tale life on “Wonderland.” Warrior is pop crack for a generation of rebels, wallflowers and the people who don’t understand them.
Alicia Keys, Girl on Fire
It’s called Girl on Fire, but when does Alicia Keys’ new album ignite? When do these sparks become flames? It just takes a while. Keys’ first disc since 2009’s The Element of Freedom opens with her moment of emancipation and self-actualization on the piano lifter “Brand New Me” – from what, who knows, since it could be citing motherhood, label changes … or that cute new hairdo. Whatever she’s referencing, it’s sung with a seething passion that has her blazing with emotion. You can practically see the fire in her face. These Alicia-at-the-piano moments – of which there are many on Girl on Fire – tend not to cast Keys as “brand new;” instead, they’re subtle reinventions that tweak the soul-sister style she’s been honing since Songs in A Minor was released 11 years ago. Some of it’s easy to write off: “New Day” has the beat but could’ve been written by anyone who likes to string party clichés together, and let’s just say reggae – where she takes “Limitedless” – ain’t her thing. The slight but vocally powerful “That’s When I Knew” refreshingly tries on some lo-fi acoustics, while electro drums swash the John Legend-scribed “Listen to Your Heart.” But it’s no surprise that she’s best when she holds tight to her roots: “Tears Always Win” is an old-school heartbreaker that’s got everything but a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. If you let it, the rest of Girl on Fire will burn inside your soul, too.
Another year, another Rihanna album. Coming off the dreadfully DOA Talk That Talk, she falls back into the darkness of her biggest commercial flop – but my personal favorite – Rated R. On “Diamonds,” RiRi just can’t tap into the emotional tide of a song that requires so much more than she gives. It doesn’t help that Sia’s songwriting here is almost juvenile. Love’s complications are better probed during “Lost in Paradise,” so good it could’ve been on Rated R. “Jump” pulsates into a glorious sexy-time song, but it’s the ballads that really surprise: Just piano accompanies her during the touching “Stay.” Unapologetic is Rihanna’s most complicated outing – accepting the bad with the good, giving in when she knows she shouldn’t. This is love in a hopeless place.
Lana Del Rey, Paradise
When Lana Del Rey took her prime-time debut on SNL as seriously as a fifth grade talent show, people wondered: What the hell? Her authenticity was questioned like it mattered (because every pop star is all real, you know), but Del Rey – fake or not – had an alluring magnetism in that Marilyn Monroe sultriness and the pop noir of her phenomenal debut, Born to Die. Whoever she was, it was fascinating. That same mystique on _Paradise_, an eight-song EP, is still relatively potent – with its night-drive vibe, “Ride” works best – but it also reveals her stagnating artistry. Just about all the songs lilt and wisp and have deceivingly pretty strings flowing through them like they should accompany a Fatal Attraction sequel. A fake career can survive; a lifeless one cannot.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.