Final Rating: 8.8/10
Lady Gaga, often slammed or highly praised, is no stranger to controversy and to how the music industry works. After her last album Born This Way, one of which was either adored or ridiculed for its messages and filthy beats, and after a tour cancelation, a broken hip, twitter feuds, and so many other troubles, she seemed to keep a level head for her biggest project yet, ARTPOP (Yes, in all capital letters). Like anything Lady Gaga related, you may love this album or you will hate it depending on how you feel about her to begin with or whether or not you agree with what she is trying to do. This writer is highly impressed with ARTPOP; A musical journey that travels through genres, ideas, and emotions. It is an album that starts off far fetched and off the walls and then slowly comes down to Earth and is frighteningly personal.
The album starts off with Aura, a bizarre track that begins with the kind of sounds you would hear on a weird Born This Way track (perhaps Americano). The song talks about the murder of the narrator’s former life (presumably Born This Way) as the bass featured on this album bursts its way slowly into the song, changing the song entirely. That is how the album starts. It starts with the most experimental song on the album, as it transitions into the second weirdest song Venus: A modern B52s-like song that combines partying, sex and astronomy with an eerie Sun Ra sample that chants within the background. The album begins to explore sex based songs with GUY and the more toned down Sexxx Dreams, as it jumps into a hip hop based song called Jewels and Drugs (two of the other topics found in rap) featuring T.I., Too $hort and Twista. Following this theme of popular radio genres we have the rock anthem MANiCURE which cleverly combines the idea of getting a manicure to relieve ones self of stress with the mentality of being rid of men entirely. After so many songs about sex and self power, we have Do What U Want, featuring R Kelly, which has Lady Gaga sacrificing her body as a sexual object but refuses to give up her mental integrity. It is a driven song with R&B elements that features some of Lady Gaga’s best vocals to date.
After so many heavy hitting songs, we reach the midway point with the title track ARTPOP: A pretty and calming song about unity. The concept of self depravation for art returns, sadly (for the pop star, not for us) with Swine. Swine, too, is about self sacrifice for one’s passion as it is a much more confrontational song about doing what it takes to live one’s dream as it exposes the disgusting personalities of higher ups. Suddenly, the second half of ARTPOP reveals itself to be the more hard hitting half lyrically, as the first half focused on giving us a good time and on being strong. Donatella follows as a satirical look on the idol of the same name, as it both commends her for her importance yet also paints the tabloid driven picture of her (with lyrics about how she is a self empowered bitch). Fashion! similarly praises yet mocks the fashion industry with lyrics that are as flashy as a photo shoot itself: You sense the reality behind the art. Mary Jane Holland follows, and it is a marijuana anthem. However, it isn’t the typically sleazy weed song. It’s actually a bitter sweet epic full of dirty synths, a theatrical bridge, and lyrics that both promote highs yet show one’s dependency on them.
This leads us to Dope, a piano ballad that can be linked to marijuana as well yet is Lady Gaga’s most hard hitting song yet. It compares the separation between her and her loved one(s) with being separated from a drug. It’s candid. It’s heavy. It’s Lady Gaga at her most bare ever. Gypsy trails afterwards with a piano intro that fights back with an upbeat rhythm signifying Lady Gaga’s strengths lying amongst her music and her effect on the world musically. As she ends the song off with listing the names of countries, she mentions “I don’t speak German but I try”. This is a clever homage to her song Scheisse off Born This Way, which sexually states “I don’t speak German but I can if you’d like”. Only this time in Gypsy, she’s showing her efforts as an entertainer, not her will to impress a lover. The album is over with her remembering why she is a performer to begin with, and we conclude the album with the epilogue Applause: A tune devoted to her fans.
A track by track commentary is necessary since ARTPOP is a clear concept album that travels from obscurity to realization. The album is linked musically as well, with songs that bounce off the starts and finishes of one another (yet never fully transitioning, which would usually be a bad note but here it works as this is an album of pop songs that can be played individually). We hear a lot of EDM beats and synths throughout the album, but they never feel fake like they did on Born This Way, despite being electronic sounds. They sound as real as electronic sounds can sound. The production on this album is well done, with walls of sound thick enough to stand within and bass that cascades off all corners of the room. There are many sounds and ideas happening at once. As an example, Venus (which Lady Gaga produced herself) will have snare drums get more and more layered to punctuate parts of the song more than others to create dynamics. In ARTPOP, she creates a falsetto sung melody to accent the background music of the second verse, never mind a chorus. These kinds of cares of all parts of the songs are what separate ARTPOP from your run of the mill pop album. Vocally, Lady Gaga has never been better, as she belts the high notes in Do What You Want, screams in Swine, and channels many of her idols ranging from Elton John and David Bowie to Christina Aguilera and Annie Lennox.
ARTPOP is interesting because its goal was to combine pop with art, clearly. While it shows a great sense of pop being done well, its sense of art doesn’t pop out at first until a further look. Pop art, a type of art popularized by Andy Warhol, created meanings and art through commercial objects. On ARTPOP, Lady Gaga creates further meanings within the same songs. Mary Jane Holland isn’t just about being high: It’s about hiding behind a fake person. Donatella isn’t just about admiration: It’s about jealousy. Do What U Want isn’t just about standing up for yourself: It’s about begging for your reputation as you are stripped of your innocence. This album may not scream about the art classics or stray too far off the pop spectrum, but each song creates ideas that can be analyzed on a further analysis as a double meaning (including the overly silly Venus, which can either be a fun and sexy song or reference an outside look on how the world is run). While the album can be silly at times lyrically, the album is meant to be a fun experience for the most part so these silly hiccups are easily forgiven.
With every song climaxing, every track leading off the next, and the album taking a ride from the highest point outside of one’s mind down into the deepest parts of their subconscious, ARTPOP is an unusual pop album. It’s rare to see such a commercial pop album have such steady precision and such purpose. In the end, not everyone will be a fan of Lady Gaga, but after ARTPOP, one has to respect the hard work that went into this album. Lady Gaga co wrote and co produced virtually every song on here and had a lot of control over this idea she had in mind. With the eccentric cover that’s bizarre at first but rather stunning after some getting used to, this album may be a bit weird to some at first. However, whether the trip is a good one or not, it’s a rare time such a commercial album is worth the devotion and time of everyone. It’s the album that separates Lady Gaga from her pop rivals on the radio and on disc, and it’s the album that will remind us why she is to share an entire album with the legendary Tony Bennett next year, and why she has performed on stage with The Rolling Stones. It is the album that reminds us why Lady Gaga is Lady Gaga.