It seems a bit strange to me how polarizing a new Lady Gaga release is these days. There are those that feel she has gotten too bizarre since putting out her first single “Just Dance” back in 2008. There are those that feel she is infallible and can do no wrong, and pretty much pee themselves with excitement at the mention of anything Gaga coming out. Some just think she is batshit crazy. I’ve seen some even call her talentless. She must have made it because what great pop star hasn’t had all of these opinions thrown at them.
So let’s break this album down shall we? First we should look at the production. With any pop album, be it Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher, Rihanna, Miley… the choice of producer makes all the difference in the world. Most production duties are split between DJ White Shadow who had remixed Gaga tracks in the past and Zedd, the recent pop charting DJ whose biggest influence is definitely Justice. This sets the tone for the album. The grooves are jarring and chopped and blipped and bleeped, but never quite as harsh as say a Skrillex bass-drop track.
The album starts off in over-the-top fashion with flamenco guitars spinning and spiraling into the dizzying electronic hysterics of “Aura”, where Gaga asks “Do you want to see me naked lover, do you want to see what’s underneath the cover?”, daring you to look beyond the glossy veil and find the real Gaga underneath it all.
Track two is dancefloor charged “Venus”. Here she delves a bit into mythology and space and her “garden panty”, one of the more bizarre lyrics. The production and chorus are infectious and definitely owes a bit to Abba’s production style without actually just sampling an Abba chorus. “G.U.Y.” comes next which is a gender-twisting assertion of her own confidence and power as a female, as the girl underneath you tells you who’s in charge. This is definitely an album filled with a lot more of Gaga’s carnal side than previously. The next track “Sexxx Dreams” finds her singing in a higher range than normal over a Justice-esque groove and fantasizing about her lover and all the nasty things they could do. It’s playful and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Five songs in we get to the song that should have been a bonus track, the hip-hop track “Jewels N’ Drugs”, featuring T.I., Too $hort and Twista. I was never a big fan in the 80s/90s of the “posse cut” to begin with. Well here’s one, over a tired “dirty south” style rap track. What could have been a musical gangbang is a tragic sloppy clusterfuck. The lyrics I think are supposed to be saying I want your emotions over your possessions. “I don’t want your jewels, I want your drugs” doesn’t really get that same sentiment across. The track breaks the flow of the album completely, and will probably always be the track I skip. It’s a downright mess.
Then we jump back into the party with “MANiCURE”, a fun handclap-along almost cheerleadery romp. “Don’t you wanna be MAN-cured?”. Custome taylored for many a drag show performance I am sure. This is followed by one of the best grooves on the album, “Do What U Want” featuring none other than R. Kelly. And while I was more than certain this collaboration would turn into “the yellow party”, the two pull off a great collaboration here that has right amount of lust to pull off the lyrics. And who doesn’t want to hear R. Kelly sing “we don’t give a fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuUUUUUUUUUUUUUUck…”. Yet the second layer to this song seems to be that while someone can have promiscuous fun, they don’t have to give up their heart and mind to have a good time. Promiscuous empowerment? Okay… maybe not but it’s definitely a fun track.
Halfway through the album takes a bit of a muted turn. “ARTPOP” has a seductive and hypnotic groove that leave the flash of some of the prior tracks behind. Here she is basically professing her longing to bring art and pop together, basically the bizarre and the commercial. While the concept is nothing earth shattering, it’s more of a simple statement of her appreciation of letting creativity flow, but then professing “My artpop could mean anything”. And yet your mere reaction, whatever it may be, confirms it as being art whether you like it or not.
Then we jump back into the crazy electronics again with “Swine”, a self-explanatory track about getting in touch with your most primal side and being shameless about that. This one is the seedy club anthem of the album, complete with a ping-pong drop buildup. Gaga stays on the self-indulgent side with “Donatella”, a track from the point of view of fashion icon Donatella Versace and her shameless top shelf “rich bitch” life. Some of the funniest lines come from this song, so you’re not sure if it’s loving satire or ridicule at times. This is followed by *another* fashion song, called “Fashion!”, not to be confused with “Fashion” from 2009 on the Confessions of a Shopaholic soundtrack. This one seems to have a dash of Grace Jones and is a different side of the same idea. The beat on this one is much more of a funky laid back feel with some actual piano in the mix. This is all followed by “Mary Jane Holland”, a thinly veiled song about not only her love for the green stuff, but her want to be someone else, or her uber-ego bad girl side. And to declare tongue in cheek that she’s “rich as piss”.
After a chunk of the album dedicated to living out the party, the next two songs are the ones that actually go under the layers. “Dope”, the lone track produced by Rick Rubin, is a stripped down ballad where Gaga belts out her plea to give up the drugs and the self-destructive side of the party for true love. While the song seems to be an apology from an addict to a lover, it also works on a personal level for her, as she explained on her ArtRave vevo special that she wants to give up her habits for her fans. Either way the song is well written and showcases her voice belting out from a place of actual longing and pain. After this is “Gypsy”, one of the triumphs of this album. Gaga professes her need to be a free spirit but sings “I don’t want to be alone forever”, choosing of the two to live a wandering gypsy lifestyle. The song is celebratory and just a lot of fun. It’s almost a continuance of “Marry the Night” and has a very anthemic power to it.
Finally we have “Applause”. The song that was the introduction to the project is the final track instead. In its placement it’s easier to see it in context, that Gaga is being honest about her crave for attention and adoration of her fans, since they mean so much to her. Sure the video then makes it all look creepy so you’re not sure if she’s being honest or if she’s not getting her own joke. Perplexing to some possibly, maybe even angering. How dare she confess she’s an attention whore? Then again aren’t we all in some regard? In any context, the music does sound more fresh than a lot of the hits on the radio, even with its 80s style electro-handclaps.
And that’s it. It’s an album full of well-crafted pop songs, take them or leave them. Like the huge blue ball on the cover, you can gaze at the songs until they make sense to you, or you can relax, take it in and enjoy. After all, art in any of its forms should make you feel *something*. I really feel like this album works. The detail in the production reveals itself a little more with each listen. While the lyrics may not always read like literary perfection on a page, they definitely play with the music. It sounds good… it feels good… and I want to hear more of it. It must be that damn Illuminati again!
Check out some videos and performances from the album:
“Venus” (Live from the Graham Norton Show):
“Do What U Want” (feat. R. Kelly) (Live from Saturday Night Live):
“Gypsy” (Live from the ArtRave):
“Dope” (Live from the ArtRave):