Review Summary: Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick.
The point at which Lady Gaga bought into her own hype can be traced back to the unveiling of the album cover for her second studio album Born This Way
, where she stated “The vision is of me in an endless journey. I am a vehicle. I am a vehicle for all of the ideas. And I'm not riding away or towards anything, I'm just in endless state of creativity.” Gaga had already left her image as a jaded mirror to fame culture behind and had become a voice for the misunderstood, but it wasn't clear until that moment how much she was morphing into an almost completely new entity. The zaniness that one generally associates with her was still present, but something had changed by the time Born This Way
was released. Her music videos, live performances, and tweets got wilder and more uncontrolled, all in the name of standing firm against the Oppressor and rallying for the Oppressed.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with activism, but what Gaga didn't realize was that focus on activism pulled her away from her early appeal. For all her ridiculous costumes, shows, and overall persona, Gaga has never been as subversive or innovative as she thinks she is, and the era of Born This Way
saw her struggling to marry her visions of out-of-the-box grandeur with heavy-handed bravura across her mediums. In a word, Gaga was taking herself too seriously.
Fast-forward to the present; ARTPOP
doesn't see Gaga taking herself any less seriously, but it does see her articulating that self-importance in more appealing ways. Her hooks have always been some of the best in the pop genre, and her latest studio album dresses her usual maximalism in production to match. This album makes Born This Way
seem like a minor Top 40 entry. The beats and sounds are patchwork and unpredictable, and Gaga has never sounded more alive with a project. She’s a strong vocalist, a trait that gets forgotten behind all the glamour and shock-value, and she gives almost every track her all, which makes even the most imperfect outings on ARTPOP
But Gaga has usually been at her best when she’s imperfect. It’s what made The Fame Monster
so rewarding: her mix of unhealthy devotion, obsession with sex, and crushing self-doubt kept her intriguing, even relatable. It’s a mix that she glossed over during the past two years, and it’s a mix that she dives into once more on ARTPOP
. And when she combines her tricky themes with stellar soundscapes, she’s unstoppable. “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams” are some of her best work yet, with gigantic hooks and dark themes to boot. “G.U.Y.” in particular sees Gaga theorizing about dominance in a relationship while wishing “I wanna be the girl under you.” Sometimes she gets ahead of herself and things run too off-the-rails, like the astronomy lesson on “Venus,” but Gaga lets that darker psyche carry throughout the album, and for the most part, she manages to put the Monster back into “Mother Monster.”
It’s the Mother part of that nickname that gets Gaga into trouble. No matter what production she gets her hands on, Gaga is simply not interesting when she’s being self-referential. It’s what made the lead single “Applause” so empty: nobody cares to hear Gaga ask people to clap for her. “Do What U Want” finds Gaga directly combating her critics with rather lame lyrics, and R. Kelly doesn't have a clue as to what he’s doing on a song like this. Only the piano-turned-synthesizer confessional “Dope” gets mileage out of her love for her fans and her career. Thankfully, tracks like these are scarce on ARTPOP
, but when Gaga phones it in on “Jewels n’ Drugs,” an ugly, messy rap feature that sounds like a bad bonus track from Cruel Summer
, one can’t help but worry that she’s losing her way again.
Yet despite its flaws, ARTPOP
reaffirms Gaga’s position as one of the most important artists in pop music. Like its atrocious cover and, frankly, eye-rolling title, the album is a juxtaposition of everything Gaga has accumulated since “Just Dance” and still manages to be an overall rewarding experience. She’s yet to create an album that fully showcases what she’s capable of, but this is a step in the right direction. She sings on the title track “My ARTPOP could mean anything,” and in this case, it means improvement.