Lady Gaga has hit the “make or break” point of her career. After ascending from God knows what planet and completely changing the game for pop music and dominating the charts with her every move, her first signs of weakness came at the tail end of her Born This Way project. Between actually putting up a single that didn’t go top-10 and having to cut her tour short due to a hip injury, the “Tour de Force Lady Gaga” was suddenly vulnerable and borderline uninteresting in the public’s eye; we were too used to her and her many eccentricities. What resulted was a much-needed break for everyone. It gave her the opportunity to re-invent herself and make an actual comeback that broke from her “business as usual” routine, and we all had the opportunity to catch our breath. Still, she was able to plant the ARTPOP seed and build momentum for the project. Lady Gaga set up expectations for something pretty groundbreaking and experimental. After months of hype and finally giving us something audible to experience, in the form of first single “Applause” (review HERE,) she was officially reintroduced to the mainstream. Lady Gaga was seemingly willing to fully embrace this “phoenix from the ashes” opportunity she had, and all she really had left to do was give us one hell of an album.
So we finally have ARTPOP, in full, at our disposal, and it’s time for the verdict. Going in remembering that she’s the same Lady who gave us mega-hits like “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” and “Born This Way,” the expectations are through the roof for something forward-thinking, well-crafted, and guiltlessly addictive, in addition to the promise of being experimental. ARTPOP, in reality, is a disjointed 15 song compilation of various ideas. Some of them are successful, and some of them not so much. Luckily, the album gets off to the right start and opens up with a pair of soaring triumphs. We kick off with the previously leaked, recently polished “Aura,” one of Lady Gaga’s greatest works in the “thinking” department. The track is a compelling, multi-facted experimental dance piece that feels ready to fall off the tracks at any time, but manages to hang on for dear life. It’s a far cry from her pop hits, but it works in the context of pushing her in a new direction. The track is quickly followed up by “Venus,” the aborted second single. The song, produced entirely by Gaga herself, is a daring success on most accounts. It’s probably for the best that it wasn’t sent to pop radio, though. Again, this is the kind of the song that has potential to up her stock as an artist, but not necessarily as a pop star.
Next up comes “G.U.Y.,” an acceptably pleasant album track. The song takes a tiny step closer to commercialism, but it’s still hard to wrap your head around it being a realistic single candidate. It’s largely a forgettable piece that isn’t nearly as clever as it wants to be, and becomes instantly eclipsed by “Sexxx Dreams.” The sleazy, teasing med-tempo dance song, complete with a slap bass breakdown, actually ends up working. It keeps up with the whole 70s throwback craze that’s been seeping into pop music all year, but doesn’t sound like it’s trying too hard to fit in. Unfortunately, then the party dies. “Jewels & Drugs,” up next on the tracklist, sees Gaga embrace her nonexistent inner-gangster on this full on, wildly dated, hip hop track that ends up sounding more insulting than it does interesting. The song features rap verses from T.I., Too Short, and Twista that are interspersed between Lady Gaga’s unconvincing, senseless babbling about putting “honey on your pancake” and whatever else happens to be on her mind. There’s really nothing about “Jewels & Drugs” that feasibly works; it should have never even been attempted, let alone included on her album.
Luckily, things pick back up a bit with “MANiCURE,” an upbeat, guitar-infused piece that taps into Gaga’s rock side. Again, I’m not sure it could realistically work as a single, but it’s a solid, catchy album staple that actually gets ARTPOP back on track. Things really fall into place in a big way with “Do What U Want,” which ingeniously features R. Kelly as her duet partner. The song, now the album’s second single, is so triumphant because it never gets overcomplicated. R. Kelly’s soulful, sultry, and powerful presence juxtaposes brilliantly with Gaga’s voice and the simple, electro-R&B backing track. This has the potential and spark that her early hits had, and it’s all because she’s not trying too hard. However, we’re already 7 songs in, and it’s the first realistic single that’s been presented, which speaks volumes about the record shortcomings early on. Luckily, the momentum continues to build with the stunning title track. “ARTPOP” is the kind of song that feels cosmic and, simply, “just right.” Again, Gaga keeps it simple, and the end result is something of brilliance. By this point, there are some real highs and some real lows, but very little connection between the tracks. It’s clear that Lady Gaga is going out there and doing whatever she wants, which I fully support, but it doesn’t always make for a consistent or cohesive album. So far, ARTPOP is not either of those things.
The second half of the album moves along with another successful track, “Swine.” Lyrically, this is one of Gaga’s most honest and brutal, but it makes for an endearing piece of music that also happens to be euphorically danceable. If there was one of the “experimental” (but not really) type tracks that could conceivably be released as a single, it’d be this one. The song may not revolve around one of her soaring melodies, and the wind up to the climactic dance breaks may be a little unconventional for radio, but the song showcases Lady Gaga at her most intuitive and constructive. “Swine” actually delivers on the hype she created for herself. Unfortunately, it’s followed up by one of ARTPOP‘s biggest letdowns. Again, just when the momentum is building, she shoots herself in the foot. “Donatella” features a pleasant, but redundant backing track, especially when paired with “Swine,” but the lyrics are just one face palm after another. The track is probably the most obvious sign that she should have trimmed the album down from the unnecessary 15 tracks that currently make it up. From here on out, it’s hard to believe that there’s actually any spark left. “Fashion!” is a respectable, funky dance piece that does its damnedest to be the entirety of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and even with help from David Guetta and will.i.am, ends up just being “okay.” Continuously, “Mary Jane Holland” feels like a redundant and forgettable gap-filler. It isn’t a bad track, but it just doesn’t do anything for ARTPOP.
Where the album should already be over, it is now just beginning to wrap things up. Luckily, she redeems herself just enough to make it not feel so exhausting. First up for the closing trio is “Dope,” which was first introduced as “I Wanna Be With You” (same track, different lyrics) at the iTunes Festival this year. The simple, Rick Rubin-produced ballad ends up being a real winner. Gaga’s voice is the standout star here, but it’s her earnest lyrics that makes it so captivating. It’s the first time on the album that she feels completely in her element, making the kind of music that, when juxtaposed with her dance pop, made her so noteworthy and captivating early on. “Dope” is a much-needed moment in the context of the record. It eases in nicely to “Gypsy,” ARTPOP’s penultimate track. While it does make for a pleasant listen, the song tries too hard to be the album’s “The Edge Of Glory” moment. All in all, it feels a bit too “been there, done that” 80s rock ballad, but you’d be lying if you said you didn’t get sucked into it at least a little bit. Then, finally, we wrap things up with “Applause,” which ends up inducing a sigh of relief. I can see where she was coming from by making it the closer, but based on the other tracks, it was a huge sequencing mistake. ARTPOP needed “Applause,” which actually is one of the most commercially-viable songs, somewhere early in the record to keep the momentum moving.
So there we have it: ARTPOP in all its glory. What’s the overall reaction? Well, it’s almost completely mixed. On one hand, there are some serious strokes of genius that deliver on all of Lady Gaga’s promises, but there are also some glaring errors that bring the whole thing down. There was no need to saturate the record with 15 tracks, especially when 3 or 4 of them are completely disposable. A more concise, cohesive record would have done wonders for the overall effect. Both The Fame and Born This Way suffered from the same mistake. On the other hand, her most revered work to date, the not-quite-EP-not-quite-LP, The Fame Monster contained only 8 tracks, and they were all brilliant. It’s a concept I wish she’d commit to! She really needs to stop jam-packing her albums with painful fillers that don’t advance any sort of plot or momentum. Nonetheless, the better moments do win out in the end. Lady Gaga has some real triumphs on ARTPOP that are classic additions to her impressive discography. There isn’t the same kind of commercial viability to many of them, though, which could hurt her in the top-40 sense. She should be fine as long as she proves she can still make hits if she wants to. ARTPOP does successfully do one thing, if things don’t feel up to scratch: it reinstates Lady Gaga as force to be reckoned with in the ever-evolving world of pop music, and that does make up for its many shortcomings.