One thing that can be quickly learned from listening to music and visiting various music sites (like this one, of course) is that "universal truths" shouldn't always
be followed. Whatever the the overall consensus of a record is, it still comes down to the individual's opinion in the end. Of course then, when there's that one controversial opposite opinion, people in the popular consensus try to shoot it down; but then you've got Lana Del Rey, who's basically built an entire career on controversy and polarization. Ever since changing her persona in 2011 to a more Nancy Sinatra-inspired look and building mountains of hype around her appearance, as well as her new self-proclaimed "Hollywood Sadcore" style, people were understandably excited to hear Lana perform with this new sound (then again, not many people even heard her first album anyway). However, when she performed poorly on Saturday Night Live in 2012, suddenly the tables were turned and the negative press was just overwhelming. Of course, this had to happen a mere seventeen days before Born to Die was released as well! So yeah, not exactly the best timing... or was it?
Negative publicity is still publicity nonetheless, and it seems as though people still wound up curious about what the final product of Lana's recordings would sound like. We already got a taste of her newfound 50s affection with the singles, with "Video Games" definitely being the strongest. While not all of the singles are completely reflective of the entire album's sound ("Video Games" and even a good chunk of "Blue Jeans" don't really have as much of the hip-hop influence), they do give you a general idea of the atmosphere, lyricism, and musical influences conveyed throughout. Most likely due to the catchiness and diversity of the singles, the album ended up being a big commercial hit despite many negative reactions. But how are things like outside of the singles? Things may be a bit rough around the edges here and there, but I'm standing my ground and sticking with the positive crowd here.
Basically, almost every song is a modern variation on old 50s/60s pop music, and influences from baroque pop and hip-hop are littered throughout the experience. Lana's vocal work primarily consists of relatively low melancholic drawling, almost as if she was half-sedated before recording. As odd as her style may be, it really brings a darker and "bigger" atmosphere to the music around her and what she's singing about. Speaking of which, that's probably the most controversial aspect of this album quality-wise: the lyrics. The main opposing argument is that they're shallow and dull, and while I can somewhat get behind that, it's the execution and the music that make them work. You've got Lana rapping and singing about boys, drinking, partying, sex, and other things she apparently considers "rebellious," but what's so fascinating is how her lyrical material contrasts with the epic, almost-apocalyptic atmosphere of most of the songs. The proverbial stakes are raised to grander levels and everything suddenly seems more important; additionally, it seems as though this is almost like a modern, corrupt version of Nancy Sinatra's more rebellious lyrics from her heyday. While the borderline-trashy lines can get overbearing at times, they aren't nearly as bad as a large chunk of pop artists' lyrics today, particularly with dance pop or pop-influenced hip-hop (or vice versa).
The music holding things together is certainly interesting; as I said before, it's basically a mixture of nostalgic 50s pop, modern baroque pop, and a strong hip-hop influence. The latter is particularly depicted in the form of the beats, which populate pretty much every track on offer here; contrary to Lana's interest in east-coast hip-hop but true to her interest in blockbuster-style Hollywood compositions, the beats tend to be nearly as ostentatious as the orchestral arrangements backing many of her songs. In an album like this, the atmosphere is definitely an important factor in appreciating it; the overall product is generally melancholic, but with a sense of vastness in the production and instrumentation that prevents it from just being mopey and brooding. Even then, there's still more variety to be had, like a tinge of surf rock in "Blue Jeans"' guitar sampling or the complete cinematic string intros to the title track and bonus track "Lolita." There's also a more swing-oriented vibe in "Million Dollar Man," which brings out Lana's jazzy crooning a bit more on the lower end of her voice. Songs like "Summertime Sadness" and "Dark Paradise" flesh out the string arrangements and baroque pop elements a bit more, but continue to shift through different dynamics and tempos to keep things interesting. Regardless, the aforementioned "dark-but-epic" vibe is never lost, despite certain variations and stylistic shifts; the entire album remains thematically and musically consistent throughout, but knows when to throw you off a bit.
As pop records go, Born to Die is a bold success. It definitely leaves me confident that Lana has an incredibly promising future, and with how solid her newest EP Paradise was, there shouldn't be much to worry about. No matter how polarizing the young singer has been, there's no denying that she can craft some damn good melodies and can use her skills to create very interesting musical environments. In any case, Born to Die is an absolute winner.
Born to Die
Off to the Races