Music Reviews: Princesses of Pop Culture

Young, beautiful, catchy beats and interesting vocal projection – these are the four boxes you need to have checked off before you’re even considered to be popular in music, let alone royalty. In turn, each of these women kicked off their careers with albums that came into platinum status and projected them into the spotlight. Shakira followed her US debut Laundry Service with two albums that did modestly (one an English clone of her Spanish one), Rihanna with two records that did well with both critics and financially, and Lady GaGa (whose has been on a constant sprint since 2008) with two albums this year in Disco Heaven and most recently The Fame Monster (and being featured on a #1 single with Beyonce a month ago). Needless to say, these three women won’t vanish anytime soon for their reasons (Shakira always delivers a chart topper with every new album, Rihanna frequently changing her sounds to both find herself and find new acclaim and Lady GaGa because judging by her work ethic in music videos and creating new music, she won’t go down without a fight), so onto the reviews.

SHAKIRA – “SHE WOLF” [**½/****]
Since 2001 – when I was 10 years old – I have been in love with Shakira. She was, perhaps, my first celebrity crush. With single likes Whenever, Wherever, Objection (Tango) and Eyes Like Yours, she immediately found a spot in my heart and the album is amongst the most replayable (if also uneven with a great beginning, alright middle and solid ending). Then when I felt she was a one-hit wonder, she comes out of the woodwork in ’05 with one of the greatest singles of the decade – Hips Don’t Lie. Now it’s 2009. She’s apparently changed her style to more suit the scene and has toned down the Colombian in her to make way for a more danceable/relatable album for North Americans to jam to.

Kicking off with She Wolf, the first (and so far only) single off of the album, you’re introduced to a woman trying hard to appeal to masses. She flagrantly uses a rhythm that feels like something out of an Eiffel 65 or Daft Punk album and adds her soothing, but strong voice atop it. With her going “a-wooooo” during the chorus, there’s an element so terribly wrong within the confinements of music, let alone this song that makes me chuckle unintentionally. It’s kitsch like a cheesy 80s horror film, but it’s fun to groove to and has… interesting lyrics to boot. This can be applied to the rest of the album, but fortunately you never hear her try to mimic the sounds of a canine again.

She follows this track up with the most well-written track on the CD with Did It Again. The beat reeks of underground dancehall (a sound I adore) and the story matches the subtle sense of grime by evoking a story about the worriment that comes with being sexually attracted to a bad guy. A bit dire; a bit groovy; a bit intelligent – a great track. As an added treat it (along with Why Wait and She Wolf) is sung again at the end of the album, but in Spanish.

You aren’t introduced to something thought-provoking or too original until much later in the album at track 6: Men In This Town. To be fair, it isn’t particularly original, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t singing bits and pieces of the song (“Matt Damon’s not meant for me” for example). It’s also got one of the most memorable compositions of the year. With Shakira’s doing her voice fluctuation as best as she’s ever done, the tingling of high pitched keyboard sounds and just about every other basic sound essential to a dance single, it’s surprising how well this resonates for days. Especially the epilogue of the tune – never have I heard the word suicide sound so appealing. And normally I save that criticism for bad work.

What you get from Shakira’s latest is exactly what someone with a sense of her work would get; a bouncy 40 minutes containing a few moments of disparity and a hint of her proud ethnicity thrown into the mix. As generic as it is, it works and Shakira remains on the prowl of being considered a long lasting star.

RIHANNA – “RATED R” [*½/****]
After breaking into the music industry a few years ago with her dancehall rehashing, Rihanna has finally released an album that’s entirely her own. The only detriment that this proves is that, well, it isn’t as good as any of the sounds innovated over a decade ago. You know, the ones she repackaged and sole as her own.

‘Rated R’ is a rather miserable album. In fact, for the first half you’re subject to a terrible mix of grunge-rap. Deep beats, electric guitar and Rihanna using her ranged voice to belt out disgusting notes — without purpose, too. Her melancholic moments are found in the second half, so each of these tracks (about six of them after the neat intro entitled Mad House) hold such sounds just to show how tough she is. Lyrics like “I’m such a fuckin’ lady / you don’t have to be afraid / ’cause I got room / up on my team” in Wait Your Turn or “rocking this skirt / rocking this club / got my finger up / ’cause I don’t give a fuck” in Rockstar 101 are found in abundance here. Imaginative and tough? Please, I’ve heard more threatening tones from ice cream trucks. Better lyrics, too.

It isn’t until track nine does this album pick up. It’s a lot like bad action movie in that sense – a lot of boring build-up and then you’re treated to a semi-entertaining final act. The song where the album decides to use Rihanna’s tragic debacle with Chris Brown (more on this later) with delicacy is Photographs (featuring Will.I.Am in a delightful collaboration). A simple chorus works efficiently with the somber melody: “all I’ve got / all I’ve got are these photographs / all I’ve got / all I’ve got is nothing without you”. Not exactly deep, but it’s something on this empty album worth noting“.

Then track 10 hits. Another murky song – about revenge, nonetheless – entitled G4L (Gangster 4 Life, if you’re unequipped with the lingo here). At least here Rihanna doesn’t seem to be as much a try hard with her menace and the beat resorts to a little more tech-like rap instead of rock-rap. What is best about this song (and the album) is at small section of this track that starts at about 2:30 and closes at 3:00. For these 30 seconds, Rihanna reaches an ultimate clarity in the composition. The octaves rise, her voice becomes more silky and the lyrics, while once again plain, are beautiful. If she could have extended these few seconds over the course of a whole album this would’ve been brilliant.

Then Te Amo is about lesbian love, Cold Case Love is about Brown hitting her and her feeling betrayed and The Last Song, a somber ballad about love. Te Amo is saccharine in delivery and has a humanist harmony that I enjoyed; Cold Case Love was rugged like her feelings, so the beat and her voice finally apply well for once; The Last Song is delicate and oozes emotion, but the second half demonstrates why Rihanna and rock do not mix once again.

All in all, the raves Rihanna are receiving for this album are ridiculous. It’s apparent that the publicity of her emotional devastation is playing heavily in her favor here – and in turn hurting Chris Brown’s reception as his album (which is a lot like the rest of his decently-received ones) is getting destroyed by critics. Rated R is a collage of abrasive and cacophonous noises with few moments of stimulation; be it emotional or just a dance aesthetic.

LADY GAGA – “THE FAME MONSTER [***/****]
Finally we come to a pop star that I’m enjoying watch the success and continual growth of. Lady Godga – as some ‘clever’ people have alternatively called her – is undoubtedly the Goddess of Pop at the moment. Here’s a reign I hope lasts a long time. Her latest, The Fame Monster, could’ve easily been marketed as an EP. With a mere 8 tracks running for 34 minutes, Gaga’s effort here seems to be minimal, yet she still retains a fresh, funky sound and great vocal range.

She starts the album off with Bad Romance – a single I’m sure you’re acquainted with by now. I’m not too enthusiastic about this track – the use of synth is very plain, the lyrics, while enjoyable, aren’t anything I care for deeply and the chorus… well, the chorus is great which what makes this song repeatable for me, if just. However, she follows this track up with Alejandro and Monster – two of the best dance songs of the year. Alejandro borders racism, but semi-exoticism of the melody and her voice makes this very compelling. As always with Gaga’s music, the chorus is brilliant, if obvious: “don’t call my name / don’t call my name, Alejandro / I’m not your babe / I’m not your babe, Fernando / don’t wanna kiss / don’t wanna touch / just smoke my cigarette and hush / don’t call my name… Roberto”. Simple sexuality evoked without shame equates to potent eroticism. Gaga knows how to deliver the sex appeal.

Next up is Monster which is a double-entendre from top to bottom. Finding meaning both as a sexy horror story and a story about infatuation leading to sex, this is the best Gaga has to offer on The Fame Monster. Not only can you ponder the clever ploys in lyric, but it is also four minutes of non-stop dance. It also leaves you with a line that’ll resonate for months: “that boy is a monster”.

Sandwiched into a mediocre track and a decent one is Dance in the Dark. What I love about this is that, not only does Gaga dedicate to her music, but she also brings to light cinema. She’s mentioned Hitchcock before, so it’s believable that this – a song about a woman who is solitary and loves to dance in the dark. OK, not exactly parallel to von Trier’s feature, but there’s a sneaking suspicion I have here that she’s referencing him. Either way, it’s a fine song.

The album closes on a track entitled Teeth. She sounds a lot like Christina Aguliara here… and it isn’t a good thing. She changes up the synth-sound she loves and just works with a natural voice instead of a computer modified one, but I find it doesn’t work particularly well. It’s like listening to marching band for three and a half minutes – the only major misstep on this entire album.

All in all, while The Fame Monster isn’t her best effort yet, it sufficiently dishes out more of the lady to go gaga over. An energetic album from contemporary pop’s best – lets hope this continues from here on out.

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