Once upon a time, Lady Gaga provided us with catchy-as-F dance music that bore no real meaning, and then would throw in a beautiful power ballad that drove us to tears with its raw honesty. “ARTPOP” does little of this—Gaga is unfailingly honest with us for sure, but it may not be for the best.
“ARTPOP” begs listeners to see and hear the newly unveiled, brash pop star who has finally broken out of her “The Fame” shell, while exploring multiple (and unnecessary) genres on various tracks. Drugs, sex, submissiveness and lust dominate the themes of the 15-track LP—all of which are not even surprising (c’mon, it’s Gaga). The only difference here is how shamelessly Gaga presents herself as the artificial, attention-hungry pop singer.
It could be maturity from a few years in the business that has given Gaga the courage to brand and re-brand herself as the new-age Madonna, the superficial-yet-brilliant pop princess who simply (albeit a bit selfishly) craves the attention of her die-hard fans.
Yet “ARTPOP” leaves much to be desired, especially because many of the songs borrow heavily from “Born This Way,” but fail to incorporate the depth and insecurity Gaga exposes in her past LPs. “Aura,” the first track on the album, is among the (few) songs that shows off Gaga’s vulnerability, as well as her superb lyric-writing abilities. “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?” Gaga croons, not-so-subtly begging for a little bit of love.
It’s hard to give her love when the rest of the album relies strongly on out-of-place rap, as heard on “Jewels N’ Drugs” (a total bomb) or on annoying, repetitive electronic/dubstep combos that are more pointless and boring than fun to dance to (see “Venus” and “Swine”).
The album’s title track does nothing to reveal what the message behind “ARTPOP” even is, nor is it an entertaining song. “My ARTPOP could mean anything,” Gaga sings (she definitely has an extreme case of boring autotune-itis on this track) and she leaves absolutely zero clues as to what the hell ARTPOP means. It’s probably best to just skip this and explore the more pop-fueled songs that pepper the rest of the album.
To her credit, Gaga has more than a little bit of fun with “Sexx Dreams,” which carries an undertone of a possible lesbian affair (“Heard your boyfriend was away this weekend/Wanna meet at my place”) and even ventures into the really taboo (“When I lay in my bed/I touch myself and think of you”).
“Do What U Want” is also a sexy, fun jam (but really could do without R. Kelly) that serves as a throwback to Prince and ’80s Euro pop, making it one of the album’s more fun and tolerable tracks.
Where Gaga truly excels on “ARTPOP,” however, is her powerhouse vocal range on “Gypsy” and “Dope,” likely the best and most honest tracks on the LP.
“Dope” explores her past addiction to cocaine, and her struggle to admit to her own flaws and open herself to love (“I promise this/This drink is my last one/I know I fucked up again”). Her vocals sound strained and her voice cracks a bit during the chorus, but that only adds to the already depressing-yet-raw theme of the song (“I’ll keep searching for an answer/ cause I need you more than dope”).
Like “Dope,” “Gypsy” deals with love, but has a much lighter and upbeat tone. “Gypsy” very much deserves to be highlighted as the best track on “ARTPOP (it may even rival “The Edge of Glory”).
Reminiscent of other power ballads such as “Defying Gravity” (seriously though: “like Dorothy on a yellow brick/Hope my ruby shoes get me there quick”), “Gypsy” saves “ARTPOP” from kind of failing and falling into the forgotten $5 bargain bin at Walmart. Her impressive vocal range is emphasized here, a refreshing sound, as it’s rarely used on the rest of the album. It’s a wonder why she doesn’t just do an entire piano-ballad album, as that’s where her greatest and most undervalued talents lie.
“ARTPOP,” with much evidence to the contrary, isn’t a complete mess of the weird, outlandish and sometimes boring. Gaga hasn’t completely sold her soul—in fact, she’s done exactly the opposite. Her duty is to her hardcore fans, the ones who will die just to have her release a new single. They know Gaga is still Gaga, despite her embarrassing honesty, and heaven help anyone who thinks that the world is done with her.
Speakeasy rating: B-
Recommended tracks: “Gypsy,” “Dope”