The Week In Pop

Kesha Shows Her True Colors On Rainbow, And It’s Beautiful To Behold

“I could fight forever, but life’s too short.” Every lyric on Rainbow — Kesha’s first album in five years and the first since initiating a messy legal battle against former producer and label head Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald — is loaded, but those words in particular stand out. They’re among the first lines on album opener “Bastards,” an acoustic campfire singalong that blooms into a big, brassy finale. The song functions as a statement of purpose for the album, explaining that Kesha is back to prove her critics wrong and triumph over those who’d try to break her spirit. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” the chorus goes. “Don’t let the assholes wear you out.” In that context, “I could fight forever, but life’s too short” doubles as an implicit explanation for why Kesha would release another album while remaining under contract with her alleged abuser Dr. Luke rather than toiling indefinitely in court: It’s either this or no recording career at all.

The choice was surely not easy, but as a fan of invigorating pop music I’m glad Kesha is sharing this album with the world. Rainbow succeeds as both a comeback and a reboot, maintaining the defiantly rowdy attitude and striking vocal presence that made Kesha one of the biggest stars of the early part of this decade while successfully transplanting her sound from the realm of pop, rap, and EDM to a palette largely built from gospel, country, festival-core indie, and roadhouse rock ‘n’ roll. The changes are reinforced by collaborators including Eagles Of Death Metal, Dolly Parton, Ben Folds, and the Dap-Kings, all of whom sound at home within Kesha’s new sonic parameters.

The transition feels just as natural for Kesha, the daughter of Nashville songwriter Pebe Sebert and a free spirit who has worked with rockers like Alice Cooper and the Flaming Lips whenever she got the chance. To hear her tell it, these 14 songs are the truest representation of Kesha as an artist: “This is what I am,” she told reporters at a listening session in London last month. That authenticity extends beyond genre metamorphosis and into soul-bearing vulnerability. Although there are plenty of raucous moments on Rainbow, it cuts deeper than the (often excellent) party music she made her name on. The songs are raw and unfiltered in their subject matter, pointedly addressing Kesha’s personal trauma and the larger world issues that played into it.

That much was clear on the album’s first two singles. First came “Praying,” an orchestral piano ballad produced by Macklemore associate Ryan Lewis that gets the most out of every tear-jerking trick in the book, up to and including a gospel choir. As the music builds from somber reflection to exultant release, Kesha’s fiery vocals rebuke Dr. Luke, who previously exerted close control over her career and who she has accused of drugging and raping her on top of emotionally manipulating her for years. (He denies the allegations.) It’s an eminently quotable song filled with stinging blows; one passage from the second verse reads, “I can make it on my own/ And I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known/ I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain/ When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name.” The chorus finds room for compassion and even potential redemption amidst the vengeance: “I hope you’re somewhere prayin’/ I hope your soul is changin’/ I hope you find your peace/ Fallin’ on your knees, prayin’.”

“Praying” is both a powerful piece of music and a moving demonstration of strength. Ditto follow-up single “Woman,” albeit in different ways. The scope this time was less explicitly personal, with Kesha responding to Donald Trump’s notorious “grab her by the pussy” comment — a symptom of the same widespread misogyny that contributed to Kesha’s predicament — by affirming her independence and her unwillingness to suffer fools. She did so in characteristically saucy fashion: by shouting “I’m a motherfuckin’ woman!” over a lively retro soul groove spiked with nasty blasts of brass. It’s one of the finest singles of 2017 and arguably the best song she’s ever recorded — and there’s bonus enjoyment in knowing men like Trump would likely be too insecure to sing along with the powerhouse hook.

The rest of Rainbow never quite scales those heights, but highlights abound. The amped-up “Let ‘Em Talk,” another middle finger to the haters, is one of two tracks featuring Eagles Of Death Metal, yet by the time the chorus hits it more closely resembles the ecstatic indie-pop of bands like Los Campesinos! than Jesse Hughes’ own hard-rawk ethos. “Finding You” expands from spindly finger-plucked folk-rock into power chords like an endless horizon. “Rainbow,” written while Kesha was in rehab for an eating disorder, tells a story of escaping from darkness to “put those colors on” and paint the world; it’s buoyed by a Ben Folds pocket symphony that will remind you of Kesha’s association with the Lips. The old-school country strut “Hunt You Down” finds her threatening a man who’d dare sleep around behind her back: “Baby, I love you so much/ Don’t make me kill you.” And the pair of oddities that end the album, “Godzilla” and “Spaceship,” are entirely charming: the former a cutesy twee ballad about falling in love with a bumbling social reject, the latter a stripped-down banjo-strummer about feeling like an outcast yourself, both benefitting from Kesha’s seemingly bottomless supply of indelible melodies.

Even the tracks that don’t fully connect have winsome qualities about them. The undeniably catchy “Hymn” is a lighters-up synth-pop anthem for “kids with no religion”; aside from sitting awkwardly next to a song about praying to God for forgiveness, it also feels a bit shallow in its sloganeering, though as a God-fearing person maybe I’m not the target audience. Kesha duets with Dolly Parton on “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You),” the song Kesha’s mother wrote for Parton nearly four decades ago, and it’s more exciting in concept than execution. “Learn To Let Go” sounds like it was written to soundtrack YouTube preroll ads and MTV reality shows like the one Kesha used to star in, but man would it be effective in those contexts. “Boots” is the only real throwback to her dance-pop past, and it would be better if it didn’t strain so hard to fit in with Rainbow’s guitar-centric sound. (Also, it includes the album’s only true lyrical head-slapper: “If you can’t handle these claws, you don’t get this kitty.”)

It’s easy to roll your eyes at a pop singer self-consciously moving toward quote-unquote real music, and in those lesser moments Rainbow might reinforce that kind of skepticism. Those instances are few and far between. On the whole, Kesha’s grand return is a smashing success and a compelling argument for letting talented people follow their muse. To dig into this album is to understand that beyond the more serious allegations against him, Dr. Luke did Kesha a disservice by so strictly dictating her creative trajectory. The prevailing hashtag at the outset of their legal drama was #FreeKesha, a sentiment that unfortunately has not yet played out on paper. On record, though, she’s liberated, and she’s soaring.

CHART WATCH

With 100,000 equivalent units and 94,000 in pure sales in its first week, Everything Now becomes Arcade Fire’s third straight #1 album following 2010’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs and 2013’s Reflektor. Billboard notes that Everything Now is only the second rock album to go #1 this year so far following Linkin Park’s One More Light and that Arcade Fire join Linkin Park as the only rock bands with three #1 albums this decade. (Other groups to score three #1 LPs in the 2010s: “One Direction, with four; country trio Lady Antebellum, with three; country group Zac Brown Band, with three.”) Also via Billboard:

Everything Now’s sales start of 94,000 (the sixth largest sales week for a rock album in 2017) was aided by a concert ticket/album bundle sale redemption promotion with the act’s upcoming tour. Other albums that have benefited from such an offer this year include Linkin Park’s One More Light, The Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open and Katy Perry’s Witness.

Arcade Fire have the only debut in the top 25. Thus, the rest of the top 10 comprises familiar names: Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, DJ Khaled, Jay-Z, 21 Savage, Imagine Dragons, Ed Sheeran, Descendants 2, and Lana Del Rey (in that order).

Meanwhile “Despacito” continues its push to become the longest tenured #1 song in Hot 100 history. The Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee/Justin Bieber hit remains on top for a 13th straight week, passing Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” to become the longest running #1 single of 2017 and inching closer to Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s record 16-week run with “One Sweet Day.” As it stands, Billboard reports that it’s one of only 11 songs to last this long at #1:

16, “One Sweet Day,” Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men, Dec. 2, 1995
14, “Uptown Funk!,” Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, Jan. 17, 2015
14, “I Gotta Feeling,” The Black Eyed Peas, July 11, 2009
14, “We Belong Together,” Mariah Carey, June 4, 2005
14, “Candle in the Wind 1997″/”Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” Elton John, Oct. 11, 1997
14, “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” Los Del Rio, Aug. 3, 1996
14, “I’ll Make Love to You,” Boyz II Men, Aug. 27, 1994
14, “I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston, Nov. 28, 1992
13 (to date), “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber, May 27, 2017
13, “The Boy Is Mine,” Brandy & Monica, June 6, 1998
13, “End of the Road,” Boyz II Men, Aug. 15, 1992

After DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” with Rihanna and Bryson Tiller at #2, French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” jumps to #3, a new peak. At 4-5-6 are Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” featuring Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne. Then comes Charlie Puth with “Attention” at #7, also a new peak. Rounding out the top 10 are Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” at #8, Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” at #9, and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” at #10.

POP FIVE

Avicii – “Lonely Together” (Feat. Rita Ora)
Avicii is back from retirement today with a surprise EP called AVĪCI. This is probably the best Avicii song I’ve ever heard and the best Rita Ora song I’ve ever heard. Take that for what it’s worth.

P!nk – “What About Us”
P!nk season is apparently approaching. A collection called Beautiful Trauma is dropping in October featuring production by a team of superstar hit-makers including Jack Antonoff, Shellback, Max Martin, Julia Michaels, and Greg Kurstin. “What About Us” fits into that late P!nk comfort zone of extremely MOR emotional bangers that successfully rope me in despite a lack of distinguishing characteristics.

Fifth Harmony – “Angel”
Here we have the timeless “I’m not that innocent” trope, reconfigured into “Who said I was an angel?”

Bebe Rexha – “That’s It” (Feat. Gucci Mane & 2 Chainz)
Earlier this year we checked in on pop striver Bebe Rexha, calling her one big hit away from household-name status. Her latest attempt involves teaming with Guwop and Tity Boi on what amounts to trap music. She even sing-raps! Her flow at first resembles a low-rent impression of Beyoncé on “Flawless” and then veers into falsetto flutters. It’s… fine? It’s at least not atrocious. She should stick to singing, though.

Cassie – “Love A Loser” (Feat. G-Eazy)
I don’t know about y’all, but if I had just recorded a basically perfect R&B song, my first instinct would not be to mar it with a verse from G-Eazy. We all make compromises to survive, I guess.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Another three women are suing Usher for having sex with them without disclosing that he has herpes. [Spin]
  • Fall Out Boy have pushed their album release to 2018. [Instagram]
  • Selena Gomez will join Elle Fanning in the cast of Woody Allen’s next movie for Amazon Studios. [THR]
  • Chris Martin sang about the controversially named Redskins during Coldplay’s DC show: “Good luck for your football team.” [WaPo]
  • Big Sean debuted a new Travis Scott collaboration at Lollapalooza. [High Snobiety]
  • Jessie J previewed her new jingle for M&Ms. [YouTube]
  • Lorde’s “Perfect Places” music video has some easter eggs and one may be a reference to Paramore’s “Ignorance” video. [Alternative Press]
  • Mike Posner launched a new podcast, What Does This All Mean?
  • Nick Jonas will play two cruise ships in September as part of the Carnival LIVE Concert series. [Cruise Industry News]
  • Rachel “Fight Song” Platten has new music coming 8/18. [Twitter]
  • The Weeknd unveiled his new Puma Parallel sneakers, which he wants everyone — including the Pope, Barack Obama, and Elon Musk — to wear. [Footwear News]
  • A man rushed the stage during a Britney Spears performance in Vegas but was quickly tackled by security. [Instagram]
  • Macklemore announced a (mackle)tour with a video in which he pledges to get a dick ring. [Twitter]

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