Monday, November 26, 2012

album review: 'warrior' by ke$ha

I remember hearing 'Tik Tok' in late 2009 and hating it.

I'm not joking here. Throughout 2010, I distinctly remember despising Miss Kesha Rose Sebert, known only by her stage name Ke$ha. I thought the autotune was gratuitous, I thought her lyrics were beyond asinine, I thought her beats were processed, obnoxious sludge, I thought her vocal style was designed to piss off everyone who heard it. In short, I thought she was the worst possible product of the pop machine, the talentless pop starlet that is made by producers. And considering she was one of the potent forces of the club music boom, particularly on the charts, I was horrified by the fact that not only was Ke$ha not going away, but there was going to be a legion of imitators. 

But perhaps the thing that infuriated me the most was the theme behind her music, the one promoting the debauched lifestyle of drunk obnoxious sorority girls, devoid of class and responsibility. And considering how much I went to clubs in 2010 and how much I was exposed to this sort of music, it was an opinion that became pretty solidly ingrained in my consciousness.

But in mid-2011, I started reading reviews of Ke$ha's albums - and much to my appalled horror, they were positive reviews. I didn't get it - I mean, how could anyone like this or tolerate it beyond the shallow standards of party music? So, convinced of my own rightness, I downloaded both of Ke$ha's albums (Animal and the EP Cannibal), and I started to do my research on the girl.

I learned that she has a major hand in writing her own songs - which surprised me, but wasn't exactly evidence for her redemption either. I learned that her mother also helped her write songs - and that her mother had been a songwriter for Johnny fucking Cash. I learned that Ke$ha primarily drew her inspiration from bands like Iggy Pop & the Stooges and the Beastie Boys and Beck - and I thought well of course she says that, why wouldn't she?

But then I found out some other interesting things. I found out that she actually shows much better in pictures and in video than in real life, and that she grew up very poor, with no idea who her real father was. I learned she was an outcast throughout school, basically due to her general weirdness and unconventionality. I learned that she had aced her SATs, that she was actually intelligent, far smarter than what her music indicated. And then I learned that in order to do her legendarily terrible live performances, she had to either be drunk off her ass or coked out of her mind. That, in some way, she was dumbing herself down for her material.

And then I took a closer look at Animal and Cannibal, and listened through them a few more times... and about in May 2011, I finally got it - and very quickly, Ke$ha became one of the few pop stars I actually liked.


To explain this, you need to first accept that Ke$ha is aware of how utterly stupid the majority of the modern pop scene is, and that her music is intended as a partial parody of this. She knows that the vapid and stupid of her fanbase aren't going to get this element - and that's the point. She can laugh at herself, knowing that her music is explicitly designed for others to laugh at the image she created and others embraced. I suspect part of it is cathartic for Ke$ha as well - she was the weird girl who was generally ostracized, and now she's writing the stupid songs that those who ostracized her dance along with, making them the joke, not her. It also completely explains why she has to be drunk or on coke to do the songs live - she's trying to walk a delicate line, and her pop star facade has to be authentic or else the joke falls back on her.

Now, this is a very, very tough line to walk, and on Animal, it's obvious where Ke$ha stumbles. Her collaboration with 3OH!3, another act that claims to be parodying the stupid modern pop scene, is one such example. And I will state that people put off by her general obnoxiousness and brashness and difficult-to-get-used-to voice are perfectly justified in their opinion. But the redemptive factor of Animal is that Ke$ha does, in fact, perfectly encapsulate the demographic she's parodying - and at this point, you can completely get why she considers the Beastie Boys a major influence (you all know that 'Fight For Your Right To Party' is a parody, right, and that the Beastie Boys were just pretending to be dumb frat douchebags, right?). However, what elevates Animal are the songs where the cracks in the mask actually show. Take 'Hungover' for instance, a song that could easily be sung by any party girl (or boy) trudging home on a walk of shame, and comes across surprisingly honest and a little uncomfortably real. 

Of course, the other thing that makes Animal a flawed, yet tolerable album is the fact that she brings a considerable intensity and energy to some great pop beats. She gets that even stupid, loud party music that's half-parody can be awesome if you're in the right mindset. It's the same thing with hair metal, power metal, and southern crunk - if you can get the joke and are still willing to be a part of it, you'll have a fucking blast. 

So while Animal was a strong first effort, I liked Cannibal a whole lot more, partially because I started get an idea of how Ke$ha wanted to evolve her musical style. I think the closest comparison is a modernized version of what Pink did with Mizzunderstood, and just like that album, it's transitory. There were the songs that were recognizable dance-pop ('Get The Party Started' for Pink, 'We Are Who We Are' and 'Sleazy' for Ke$ha), songs that were painfully honest and revealing ('Family Portrait' and 'Lonely Girl' for Pink, 'The Harold Song' for Ke$ha), and the songs that showed the artist stepping into more darker, harsher material ('Just Like A Pill' and 'Don't Let Me Get Me' for Pink, 'Cannibal' and 'Blow' for Ke$ha). 

More importantly, Ke$ha also provided two explicit kiss-off songs where she mercilessly berates men for what she perceives as weakness. These songs, 'Grow A Pear' and 'C U Next Tuesday' (check the acronym, folks) are very interesting because they show an often-overlooked element of Ke$ha's material: her appropriation of traditionally male sexual entendres and attitudes. Instead of playing coy and flirtatious, Ke$ha is upfront and forward about her sexual preferences and feelings, and her language wouldn't be out of place inside the traditionally objectifying hip-hop and rap circles. And with songs like 'Cannibal', she doesn't just adopt the masculine presence, she overpowers it by pushing the 'maneater' paradigm to its very literal conclusion. If anything, Ke$ha on Cannibal is the natural outgrowth of third-wave feminism in the modern age - strong, confident, and completely in control of her own sexuality, yet still willing and able to display vulnerability at points. 

So it was absolutely no surprise when I discovered that Ke$ha later collaborated with Alice Cooper, playing the stereotypical female succubus on 'What Baby Wants', one of his tracks on his 2011 album Welcome 2 My Nightmare. According to Alice Cooper, they actively had to rein in her macabre lyrics which Cooper describes as by far the darkest on the album. And really, this makes complete sense, if a little playing to the stereotype, but the fact that Ke$ha owns it so bloody well puts an ounce of truth to Cooper's claim that Ke$ha is a legitimate rock star. And after hearing her work on '2012' off of the Flaming Lips' collaboration album (which I reviewed here, go check it out, the album's awesome) and her claims that she wanted to write a 'rock album', heavily influenced by punk acts like T-Rex and Iggy Pop and with collaborations with Wayne Coyne, Iggy Pop, and Ben Folds, I was fucking psyched.

But then that irritating voice in the back of my mind reminded me what happened when other pop acts attempted to branch out and explore rock. Namely, the one that leapt to my mind was Rebirth by Lil Wayne, an unfathomably awful trainwreck of an album where Lil Wayne spectacularly fails to understand how rock music works. And given Ke$ha's claims and the knowledge that it wasn't as if megaproducer Dr. Luke was going to surrender one of his biggest hit-making starlets to make artistic rock, my expectation were actually significantly lower. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Warrior.

Instead I was blown out of the water. Folks, without a question we have the best pop album of the year, and this is in serious contention for my favourite album of the year. Up there with channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean and Uncaged by the Zac Brown Band and The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends by the Flaming Lips and their arsenal of collaborators. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's a flawless album, but it's pretty damn awesome, and it's precisely the evolutionary step Ke$ha needed to take to become the trashy electro-punk rock queen that I was hoping for, the fiery counterpart to Lady Gaga's icy glamour.

The Lady Gaga comparison is apt in this case, and as I was listening to Warrior, the parallels between it and Lady Gaga's Born This Way are all the more stark. Both write their own music, both are heavily influenced by the music of the past, both get intriguingly bizarre at points, both can actually sing without autotune yet use it anyway to enhance the atmosphere of their material. But whereas Lady Gaga sacrificed a tune and quality production for artistic statements, Ke$ha seems to know where to draw the line in maintaining theme and tune - and that's one reason why Ke$ha's Warrior is FAR better than Born This Way.

And yes, this is an album where Ke$ha actually does sing without autotune - and surprise, she actually can! Now, normally I get annoyed when artists who can sing use Autotune to cover up their mistakes, but that's not how Ke$ha uses it on this album, because there are distinctive moments of rawness on tracks that impressed me on how wide and potent her range actually is. And in a pop era where raw, gritty production and distortion have fallen out of favour, it was fucking awesome to hear that on the album, both in the vocals and in instrumentation.

To touch on the instrumentation, I do will say I hugely appreciated the presence of distortion and guitar on this album, and while I would have loved to see more, it was probably the best I could have hoped for when it comes to production while still maintaining the very dancable electro-rock feel for which Ke$ha was going. There are a few instrumental missteps, and I'll touch on those when I go through the tracks, but overall, if you don't give a damn about the lyrics and just want to dance, this is one of the most energetic and fast albums I've heard this year, with a few moments that almost feel epic.

The album begins with 'Warrior', and I will be blunt and say it isn't the best way to represent this album going forward. It's more electronic than the other tracks, there's more autotune, the beat during the second verse can be grating, the bridge breakdown isn't great, and Ke$ha's rapping becomes almost reminiscent of Pink Friday-era Nicki Minaj - except without the 'hashtag rap' garbage, so it's actually better. But that being said, Ke$ha brings a lot of intensity as she calls for revolution with plenty of violent imagery. Against what? Well, I think Ke$ha just wants to assert herself and her fans to go kick ass and take names - basically a 'Fuck You, I'm Awesome' song in a similar template to 'Blow' from Cannibal - but she owns the songs pretty damn effectively. That being said, of all of her title tracks, 'Warrior' is the weakest ('Cannibal' is the strongest, for those who care).

Fortunately, she brings in 'Die Young', a song cowritten with Nate Ruess from fun., and it shows in the almost-apocalyptic tone and tight lyrical meter. Not going to lie, I think this is one of the strongest charting pop songs of 2012, and I sincerely hope I get the chance to put it on my year-end list. And yes for all of you naysayers, I know that there are chord similarities between it and 'Good Feeling' by Flo Rida - and for the record, 'Die Young' is far better on every level, in both lyrics, instrumentation, and the fact Ke$ha actually has personality in comparison to Flo Rida. And for everyone who thinks that Ke$ha is doing something risky and dangerous by evoking images of the Illuminati - Ke$ha's trolling you, and she was successful. Suck it, morons!

However, 'Die Young' is also one of those songs with a interesting double meaning when delivered in a different context. Here is Ke$ha's reinterpretation of the song 'deconstructed':



If there was any doubts at this point that a.) Ke$ha can sing and b.) she has been ruthlessly parodying the hard partying club lifestyle, they were ruthlessly crushed here. Instead of the energetic party song, Ke$ha's tone is muted and sombre, depressed and lonely. It's an entirely different, but very real and very accurate portrayal of the other side of the 'YOLO' philosophy, and it's a little heartbreaking to listen to.

But to move on to (slightly) less depressing topics, Ke$ha's next song is 'C'mon', a song that got a fair amount of flack from some critics as treading older ground. And indeed, there are plenty of similarities between this and 'Crazy Beautiful Life' and a few other of Ke$ha's party material, but the interesting point with 'C'mon' is in the bridge, and reveals a hidden desperation in the track. Instead of partying for the sake of partying, Ke$ha's partying and drinking in an effort to escape something - she doesn't want to think about the future or the past - she's pleading with her listener to just enjoy this moment of euphoria in the dance, to join her in forgetting trouble and just letting go.

Up until this point, outside of some guitar work on 'Die Young', the rock elements haven't really surfaced on this electro-rock album. That changes with 'Thinking Of You', which is a strange electro-rock blend of 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' by Taylor Swift and 'Want You Back' by Cher Lloyd. But while both of those songs suck, Ke$ha manages to make 'Thinking Of You' work by considering two factors. First, in contrast to Cher Lloyd, she rises above the high school bullshit and twists the song into another 'Fuck You, I'm Awesome' track, and while she acknowledges she doesn't want her ex back, she does think about him. That implies a bit more thought than Taylor Swift's precociously cute kiss-off, and a certain degree of depth - it makes the song feel like it comes from a place that's more real. It also has a line where Ke$ha tells that ex to 'suck her dick', and since Ke$ha doesn't have a dick, it's yet again another place where Ke$ha's co-opting male gender roles to both emasculate her ex and strengthen her own sexual persona. I'm reminded a bit of Beyonce here, but Ke$ha does one better than Miss Single Ladies by actually acknowledging that she is thinking of the other guy in the picture, and by leaving it ambiguous what she's thinking, it make things interesting.

The next track, 'Crazy Kids', has been highlighted by critics as one of the best songs on Warrior, and it is. Not only is the chorus incredibly catchy and driven by guitar, but it features pretty damn solid rap verses that easily hold up. It's a basic enough rhyme scheme, but she delivers here with plenty of intensity. And as for the lyrical themes, Ke$ha decides to deem her wild dancing cohorts as the crazy kids, telling everyone else to fuck off and stop judging them because dancing might be all they have. If anything, it's a bit of a different step, as it seems that Ke$ha's trying to change her unironic fans, those who embraced her parody material and were the butt of the joke, into a group she can genuinely embrace. It's a risky move, but I think she pulls it off here. And I would be remiss to mention the fact that Ke$ha is probably close to her best in her vocal delivery on the chorus and bridge, which are both almost devoid of autotune. So yeah, awesome track.

The next track is 'Wherever You Are', which seems to be something of a conventional love song, but it's still surprisingly danceable. Funnily enough, it seems initially to be a song where Ke$ha's pining over a guy (which she's done before, with mixed results), but this song is a little smarter. She acknowledges the relationship ended, but it doesn't seem like she's angry with this ex - no, instead it seems she's grateful for the times they had. I'm not sure she's over him entirely, but it does seem that she's acknowledged she has no idea where he is, and that he probably won't come back. That's... surprisingly mature, all things considered. That said, the beat and chord structure is a little formulaic for me, and while it does execute well, I would have liked to see something a little more complex and interesting.

And boy oh boy, Ke$ha delivers that on the next track, 'Dirty Love', featuring Iggy Pop, a blisteringly short electro-punk rock song that is without a doubt my favourite on the album. I sincerely hope this is made a single, because this song kicks so much ass, between the pounding fast-paced beat, the distorted guitar, Ke$ha pushing her voice to the limit, Iggy Pop's sleazy and very memorable verse, and the insanely catchy chorus. It takes the template created by Alice Cooper's song and blows it up to eleven and gives it a trashy punk style that I would sincerely love to see become massively popular again. It's hilarious,  amazingly retro, raw as hell, and fucking awesome.

The next track slows things down significantly with something I never thought I'd see Ke$ha do - a jazzy, piano/organ/guitar driven ballad, where Ke$ha tries to reminisce about the elements of her past. No autotune, no insane gimmicks, just simple, quietly sad reminiscing, and it's well-written and detailed enough to make it work. I'd say it's closest to Pink's collaboration with Steven Tyler, 'Misery', but where that song was loud, 'Wonderland' is a much smaller, much more personal song in the vein of 'The Harold Song' and 'C U Next Tuesday', and it really works. It shows a side of Ke$ha you don't usually see, but one that I think probably could be pretty compelling on her own.

'Only Want To Dance With You', the next track, takes thing in another step towards rock, with the barest hint of a funk synth in the mix that I actually found surprisingly endearing. In fact, if I was going to describe any of Ke$ha's songs as 'cute', this is it, as Ke$ha actually seems to feel surprise and almost resignation that she has feelings for a guy beyond just a desire to hook up. In this song, there's not even a mention of sex, she and the uncredited male singer just want to get drunk and party together, and somehow Ke$ha's now feeling the stirring of love. Awww. But one of the many things I like about this track is that she doesn't immediately want to jump his bones once she knows it's love, which shows some surprising maturity. Combine that with lines that suggest that he 'saw right through' her and likes her for some elements beyond the mask, and the fact that this song actually has a solid guitar solo (AWESOME), and I can't help but find this song appealing in so many ways.

'Supernatural', the track that achieved internet fame when Ke$ha revealed it was about a 'sexual encounter with a ghost', is a little... well, odd. I can't help but think that the synth on the verses is a little disconcerting when compared to the soaring bombast of the chorus, but that could be part of the point. Encountering a ghost is supposed to be odd and off-putting and kind of chilling as well as being awesome. The lyrics are certainly better than when Katy Perry had her alien rape fantasy in 'E.T', but the pseudo-dubstep first half of the bridge really got grating, and I wish she had gone back to the soaring, pseudo-epic tone to properly drive the song home. I can say I like it, but I don't love it.

The next song, 'All That Matters (The Beautiful Life)' keeps the one thing I definitely did like from 'Supernatural' and that was the soaring and energetic bombast. Ke$ha definitely gets the bombast/'epic' sound better than most, working the verse-chorus-crescendo element for all it's worth. But it's the lyrics I want to talk more about, as Ke$ha pulls the same urging for people to party that she did in 'C'mon', but this time there's a palpably desperate edge to it that comes to a superb climax during the bridge. In the first half, Ke$ha screams that she doesn't want to come down from the high of the dancing and the partying - but the comedown is inevitable, and her hushed plea for people to 'put their motherfucking phones' up is chilling in its vulnerability.

And then comes the final song - which samples the backbeat from 'In The Air Tonight' from Phil Collins, complete with drum breakdown courtesty of Patrick Carney from the Black Keys! FUCKING AWESOME. And if that wasn't awesome enough, it's perhaps Ke$ha's most confessional track. She says she knows she's not a model or a saint, she knows she swears and drinks too much and has bad tattoos... but she's not sorry for any of it. She has come to grips with who she is long ago, but that's not enough for her. She wants everyone else to 'get over themselves' and, in her words, 'maybe it's about the time to let all the love back in the light'. The symbolism here is pretty explicit - she's sick of the hate and the shit-talking, and that she just wants things to be happy and accepting, regardless of differences. In other words, it's a goddamn hippie song - and it's awesome.

Now if you're making a choice between the standard and the deluxe version, I strongly advise you grab the deluxe copy, because all four songs on it are excellent. 'Last Goodbye' is driven by a blend of a stomping electronic beat and a steady muted guitar at the back of the track, where Ke$ha finally reconciles the last of her feelings towards an ex through one final stream of reminiscence. You can even detect folk influences in the bridge, and frankly, adding folk and doing it well (as it's done here) always pleases me. The second track is 'Gold Trans Am' where Ke$ha viciously parodies just how fucking stupid hip-hop's obsession with cars is - and does so by sampling Queen's 'We Will Rock You' and using it as the backbone of an alarmingly catchy and hilarious country-rock song, complete with guitar solo. Honestly, this song is so fucking ridiculously fun and over-the-top, you can't possibly hate it. The third song, 'Out Alive', goes pitch-dark in its apocalyptic view of the world, but I like that Ke$ha actually uses her smallness with respect to the universe at large as liberating in order to cut loose. It's a refreshing take on the genre analogous to what she did on '2012' on The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, and her choice to be more descriptive on the track only makes it better.

Oh, and speaking of the Flaming Lips, the last bonus track is 'Past Lives' - and it's a collaboration with the Flaming Lips and Ben Folds. It's a bizarre little psychedelic acoustic experimental duet with Wayne Coyne that quotes Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time' of all things - and, I can't lie, it's really beautiful because it's a sincere love song of two souls that somehow keep falling in love despite reincarnation over and over again. If there's a song that encapsulates Ke$ha's theme of 'magic' on Warrior, it's this track, because it feels magical.

But's let's discuss that theme and ask the question whether or not Warrior really works as a coherent album around this theme, or indeed whether magic comes into the album at all. Because, really, outside of 'Supernatural', there isn't much mention of magic or enchantment in the conventional sense of the word, so you have to wonder what Ke$ha's talking about. In an interview, Ke$ha says that she wrote this album after going on a spiritual journey and experiences the 'magic of life' - and you know what, I can see it. Despite the frequently apocalyptic imagery, all of Ke$ha's songs on Warrior are about encapsulating every facet of life, mining it to its fullest and reaping every precious moment. She sings about getting the most out of light, like she's going to die young - because really, that's when we value life most, at its end. And with that in mind, you can see why Ke$ha throws herself into every track, charging headfirst into life and whatever it might throw in her face. She's strong enough, she can take it, but she doesn't want to take it alone, so on tracks like 'C'mon' and 'All That Matters (The Beautiful Life)', she pleads for people to come with her. Even when she sings about relationships that have failed, she's not holding onto grudges or heartbreaks - because really, if you're living like every day is your last, what's the point of the anger and hatred? Yet she's smart enough to know the past can affect her, and she's taking it - and indeed, everything else - in stride.

So, in the end, yeah, it is 'old hippie rock' - and I fucking love it and I will recommend it to anyone who will listen. With Warrior, Ke$ha proves that she isn't a painfully limited personality and has the guts to deliver a real positive message going forward. She evolved her style, and produced something that's exciting, energetic, and genuinely engaging. If you were put off by Ke$ha before because you didn't get her schtick or you just found her annoying or token or disposable, I strongly urge you to give her another shot with Warrior, because in a pop landscape that's so calculated, cynical, and wholly depressing (my review for Rihanna's newest album Unapologetic, in a nutshell), this is a breath of fresh air.

As Abed from Community says, 'I just like liking things'. And after listening to Warrior, I think Ke$ha agrees.

3 comments:

  1. Amazing article! Detailed and nicely written, I especially adore the introduction which is an in-depth explanation of Ke$ha phenomenon. It's good to see that someone has done some research before writing the review, unlike numerous "professional" reviewers (vide http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/nov/29/kesha-warrior-review), who probably didn't even bother to listen to the album thorougly. Keep up with the great job and can't wait to read your other posts! :)

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  2. Amazing, I definitely think out of her graduating class (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga) of artists she is the best and most solid when it comes to material!
    I agree entirely

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  3. How I would rank this album:
    Best (Tie): Past Lives
    Best (Tie): C'mon
    3rd: Dirty Love
    4th: Wonderland
    5th: Gold Trans Am
    6th: Only Wanna Dance With You
    7th: Last Goodbye
    8th: Thinking Of You
    9th: Die Young
    10th: Crazy Kids
    11th: Wherever You Are
    12th: All That Matters (The Beautiful Life)
    13th: Love Into The Light
    14th: Supernatural
    15th: Out Alive
    Least awesome (not worst): Warrior
    Btw, I mainly like songs based on how good they sound. If lyrics were more important, Love Into The Light and Wonderland would probably end up topping the list. This album is a strong 9/10 for me, I love it!
    oh yeah and the review was good as well y'know

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