Sunday, May 4, 2014

album review: 'sheezus' by lily allen

I've got a complicated relationship with Lily Allen.

See, for the longest time, she was one of the most frustrating artists I've ever listened to, an act with very clear talent in instrumentation and songwriting, and I could tell she was genuinely clever and had a knack for incisive, biting songwriting. But every time I'd go back to that first album Alright, Still, I despised it more and more every single time. The rational part of my brain was telling me it wasn't a bad record, but for the life of me, I hated the framing of that album, overloaded with vapid, spiteful bitchiness that screamed of self-aware hypocrisy but didn't have the nuance or depth to really justify it. I'm told this is a British thing in how Lily Allen is supposed to be funny, but for me it was aggressively the opposite. My issue was always in the framing, which was trying to paint Lily Allen as at least a flawed protagonist figure who was skewering shallow mainstream culture, and while there was some self-awareness at how awful she came across, it was never enough to support her hollow justifications and I never felt her rather inert delivery was cute or charming or interesting enough to ignore it.

Thankfully, she seemed to clue into this problem in time for her second album It's Not Me It's You, which I liked a bit more in making Lily Allen a little more sympathetic and the framing a little more intelligent. But at the same time, the songwriting went broader in its portrayal of her newfound maturity, and her stabs at 'deeper' topics like religion and politics were shallow at best, almost cartoonish to the point of not being able to take seriously. On top of that, her instrumentation was even more of a mixed bag, displaying more influences and styles but some seriously obnoxious hooks. And the more I listened to the album, the more I got the impression that Lily Allen was never really trying or had her heart in her music - which she flat out admitted after the release of that album and then proceeded to take a five year hiatus. 

But now she's back with an album titled Sheezus, a title modeled off of Kanye West's controversial and critically acclaimed album that came out last year. And honestly, I was intrigued where she was going with this, because there are recognizable similarities between both artists. For one, they both have a tendency to mix genres in unconventional ways, they both can be insightful and somewhat self-aware songwriters about how terrible they can come across, and yet they both have egos the size of the British Isles and can be overwhelmingly full of shit. So I figured even if the album sucked, it'd still be interesting, so I gave it a few listens - how did it turn out?

Well, I'll be blunt: this album is startlingly like Yeezus - not just that they share similar themes and elements and are both self-aware, but it also suffers from many, if not all of the same problems that album does. On the one hand, it sure as hell makes Sheezus by Lily Allen an interesting record to talk about, but at the same time, it's a frustrating, messy, and more than a little exasperating to listen through. And like with Yeezus, I won't say this album works - because I don't think it completely does - but at the same time, I get what it's trying to do. And while I am a little amazed Lily Allen was so uncannily able to replicate the experience of listening to Yeezus with her album and give it a unique taste, there's a certain lack of self-awareness to that recreation that hurts this album.

So first, for context, let's talk about Kanye West's Yeezus. Let me stress that I do mostly like the album, even so much to put 'Blood On The Leaves' as one of my favourite songs of 2013, but I know its flaws. It's unnecessarily hyperbolic, Kanye's rhymes are not close to great, it's rushed and messy, and it's very derivative instrumentally of other noise rap acts. But on another note, I get what Kanye was trying to do. Since the beginning of his career, Kanye's rapping has been characterized by one element that should have crippled his career: uncompromising honesty. It's the only reason the vulnerability of 808s and Heartbreaks works, it's the reason why the braggadocious elements of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ring as intentionally hollow, and it's the reason he was able to channel his instability and knowing hypocrisy into Yeezus. My interpretation of that album is that Kanye knows what he's saying is hyperbolic, hypocritical bullshit on a deeper level, and since he's intensely aware and cares way too much what the world thinks of him, he makes the choice to epitomize every ludicrous stereotype of black male rappers of which he can think - because in his mind, that's what the world wants. That's the reason he uses such a bellicose delivery and outlandish production. But where Kanye fails here is that his commentary and attempted satire of said material is shoddy, poorly articulated, and mired in incoherence and redundancy - it's not like rappers haven't made the exact same commentary Kanye has made or have used this sort of production to do it.

So what does this have to do with Sheezus? Well, surprisingly a lot. Not only are there a surprising number of callbacks to Kanye's album, it also features the most rough, hard-edged, and electronic production that Lily Allen has ever used. I won't say it's great - most of it falls into conventional electronic pop with a trap-inspired hip-hop edge in the darker synths and hi-hats, but there are a few moments that reflect her older sound, like the chipper melody of 'Air Balloon', the funkier guitar on 'Insincerely Yours' and 'Life For Me', the muted, shimmering piano in 'Take My Place', the accordion-driven 'As Long As I Got You', and the snarled dubstep edge of 'URL Badman'. And while I do appreciate the more melodic focus and reasonably restrained production, I have no idea why anyone thought autotune on Lily Allen's voice was necessary. She already brings a very muted personality to her album, so why strip away some of the subtleties by throwing on a layer of Autotune other than to mimic some of Kanye's usage of the tool? 

Unfortunately, unlike Kanye's shift to a harsher sound on Yeezus, the instrumentation and production on Sheezus is by far its least interesting factor - which is a shame considering Lily Allen used to at least have a greater breadth of flavour here - so let's move to lyrics and themes. Now I stand by the fact that Lily Allen is at least a clever songwriter, and she's got a gift for meter and wordplay I won't deny - although I will say this album hasn't exactly recovered the wit lost in going broader five years ago. And as with Kanye on Yeezus, Lily Allen is playing up the most irreverent parts of her persona: her bragging on 'Sheezus' and 'Hard Out Here', her anti-party party songs in 'Our Time' and 'Life For Me', and her smug detachment and dismissiveness on 'L8 CMMR', 'Insincerely Yours', and to a lesser extent on 'As Long As I Got You'. And I'll admit her satire is just as blunt and direct as Kanye's was, especially on the broad anti-troll track 'URL Badman'.

But here's where we run into the first problem: there are moments on this album where Lily Allen is opting for more sincere material and we're expected to buy into her emotional drama, and while her delivery mostly sells it, it's undercut by the veneer of self-aware irony slathered over most of the album. Plus, at least when Kanye created an exaggerated caricature on Yeezus, he had a deeper reason and it was always punctured by his own honesty. Lily Allen, however, sounds a lot less committed to that sort of exaggerated performance - even though the ego is definitely still there - and it means her execution comes across a lot more calculated and unconvincing, even on her more honest songs. It doesn't help her case when includes songs like 'Silver Spoon', which falls into the Vampire Weekend school of unwelcome privilege defensiveness where Lily Allen lashes out at people who have criticized her for her upbringing. At this point in her career, does anyone besides Lily Allen care about these sorts of comments - shouldn't her career stand for itself? The fact that Lily Allen placed the song on this album shows that, just like Kanye, she's far more concerned with the presumed 'haters' than they are with her possible delusions of grandeur, and feeding into it only makes it worse.

And then there's the biggest problem and the most ironic mirroring of Yeezus yet: the satirical points Lily Allen is trying to make through her lyrics and sound have been done before and done a lot better. That's not saying a song like 'URL Badman' isn't a good song, but it's nowhere near St. Vincent's 'Digital Witness', which covers the same ground a lot more effectively. All the heavily autotuned third-wave; feminist titillation in songs like 'Hard Out Here' might be revolutionary, except we live in a world where Kesha already covered this subject in comprehensive detail four years ago with songs like 'Grow A Pear' and 'Hungover' among others, and Natalia Kills hit on last year. Hell, songs like 'Our Time' talking about the emptiness of hard partying might work a little better in a world where Miley's 'We Can't Stop' had a strikingly similar sound, tempo and tone and played it all unironically. And that's when the framing is good! For me, the worst song of the album by far is 'Life For Me', a song where Lily Allen seems to miss the partying even though she acknowledges it was emptiness personified - even though by her own admission, her current life is complete and perfect, and the upbeat, satisfied tone of the song - and other songs across the album - agrees, which makes her commentary come across as condescension and I lose all sympathy for her pre-mid-life crisis instantaneously. She's not a part of the system making commentary on it, she's been outside the pop landscape for years now and is attempting to muscle her way in with cheap provocation. Even songs like 'Insincerely Yours' are covering ground Lily Allen has done before on previous albums in bashing vapid celebrity culture, image obsession, and even bad DJs - and since the framing places her outside of the situation, as much as I might agree with some of her points, her execution lacks tact and deeper nuance, and I can't sympathize.

So look, I don't think this is a bad album, in the same way I don't think Yeezus is a bad album. But it suffers the exact same problems that album did, and while Sheezus by Lily Allen might have better articulated points, it suffers from a lack of instrumental diversity, solid production, and Lily Allen sounding like she could give a shit. For me, I'm going to be generous and give it a 6/10, because like I said, she's a good technical songwriter and there are a few decent beats on here even if they feel a little recycled, but it's an album that's for the fans at this point, or as a case study of mimicry without complete self-awareness. And while it might be interesting to analyze, it's also a record - just like Yeezus - that adds up to a lot less than the sum of its parts.

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