The Week In Pop

Kesha Turns The Page

How do you move on? This is the defining question on High Road, Kesha Rose Sebert’s fourth album and second since the public drama that redefined her life and career.

In 2014, Kesha sued her producer and label head Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald for a wide range of alleged abuses including sexual assault and battery. In 2015, she asked the court to be let out of her contract with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records. In 2016, the courts dismissed her lawsuit and rejected her request to terminate the label deal. In 2017, on Kemosabe, Kesha released Rainbow, an album that dealt directly with that conflict and its attendant trauma.

On Rainbow, Kesha delved into musical styles she said Dr. Luke had always prevented her from exploring, largely replacing her signature blend of pop, rap, and EDM with an earthier blend of classic rock, country, gospel, and soul — one brand of gleefully trashy swagger subbed out for another. Many songs alluded to the Dr. Luke allegations and the legal battle surrounding them, and the power ballad “Praying” seemed to address Kesha’s alleged abuser directly: “I hope you’re somewhere prayin’/ I hope your soul is changin’.” Elsewhere she reaffirmed her worth and autonomy: “I’m a motherfuckin’ woman!” she shouted on subsequent single “Woman,” backed by exuberant Dap-Kings horns. Sonically it was the album she claimed she always wanted to make, even as it remained haunted by the man who had stood in the way of its creation for so long.

As the title implied, Rainbow was a note of resolution and hope after the storm that dominated years of Kesha’s life. It worked as the finale of her story. The credits had rolled. But Kesha’s life isn’t over, and neither is her career, which puts her in a tricky position. As a human being and a recording artist, she surely doesn’t want to let the Dr. Luke situation define her, nor do most of her listeners. Still, on a human level, such experiences can’t just be erased; processing your past can take a lifetime. On an entertainment level, so much about modern pop stardom is driven by narrative. If Kesha’s life has gotten more peaceful, as one might hope, anything after Rainbow runs the risk of feeling like falling action. With High Road, Kesha has mostly pulled off that tricky balancing act. She has moved on by making an album about moving on, a full-length attempt to reconcile her past and present selves.

Musically, that means finding many ways for her rootsy Rainbow makeover to interact with the electronic pop-rap sleaze of Animal and Warrior. Opening track “Tonight” introduces that synthesis from the jump, successfully sliding between “Tiny Dancer”-style classic rock elements, snarling club-rap verses, and a huge pop chorus in the lineage of “Die Young.” Lead single “Raising Hell” matches Southern gospel with New Orleans bounce with an assist from Big Freedia herself. “Birthday Suit” involves strummy young-adult-fiction acoustic guitars and a glitchy Super Mario Bros. sample. “Resentment” brings together the unlikely trio of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, post-country iconoclast Sturgill Simpson, and rising adult-contemporary producer Wrabel, while “Honey” spices up “Say It Ain’t So” guitar chords with blasts of soulful harmony. Nothing about the album’s sound is hip or tasteful, but that’s never really been Kesha’s shtick — as ever, your appetite for unapologetically garish pop will dictate your tolerance.

Thematically, High Road mirrors its music’s trajectory, searching for the common ground between Kesha the young, brash party-starter who brushed her teeth with Jack Daniel’s and Kesha the wise thirtysomething survivor who still loves to wild out with her friends. The deep cut “Kinky,” is even billed as a duet between Kesha and Ke$ha, the crass alter ego she retired after severing ties with Dr. Luke. This process often yields lyrical mantras fit for bumper stickers or Pinterest-font home decor, which sometimes works (“I don’t wanna go to heaven without raising hell”) and sometimes not so much (“I’m over adulthood/ I’m throwing all my big girl panties in the garbage can/ ‘Cause I can!”). Mostly, she strikes a believable balance between vulnerability and the bluster she made her name on.

“We get it that you’ve been through a lot of shit/ But life’s a bitch, so come on, shake your tits and fuck it,” Kesha sings on the relentlessly catchy “My Own Dance,” which gets a lot of mileage out of its hard-knock drums and a chanted chorus punctuated by a theatrical-verging-on-cartoonish hook straight out of whatever they’re calling alternative rock these days. (Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds is credited as a co-writer — turns out his shtick is more palatable in this context.) The song serves as one of several possible thesis statements for High Road. “You’re the party girl, you’re the tragedy,” goes Kesha’s imagined conversation partner. Her reply: “But the funny thing’s I’m fucking everything.”

Kesha and her cohort — primarily Wrabel, who cowrote almost every song — work hard to shore up High Road’s pop appeal by multiplying both hooks and slogans. The title track is another gospel-dance rave-up featuring a searing melody about drowning out your haters with drugs, and also this likeminded cheerleader chant: “So aggressive, passive aggressive/ Delete the message and pass me a beverage.” On the festival-ready power ballad “Shadow” she howls, “If you’re here to throw shade then you’re in the wrong place/ Yeah, you’re blocking my sunshine.” Later, “Little Bit Of Love” takes aim more directly at a frustrating ex: “You only wanna call me when we’re in a big fight/ You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone to the afterlife.” And on “BFF,” she and Wrabel reflect on the glory of platonic friendship, recalling the time he sent her “a bag of candy dicks” when she was freaking out before the Grammys.

Wrabel also seems to be harmonizing, uncredited, on the album’s most touching track, conscripted into action when Kesha commands, “Sing it with me, you shithead!” The song is “Cowboy Blues,” a tender, quirky ballad about regret. “Did I fuck my whole life up?” Kesha sings, reflecting back on a missed connection in a Nashville dive bar. “Did I miss my one true love?” Many will relate to Kesha’s frankness here, as well as her attempts to laugh off her anxiety about the future by clowning her present self. It’s a compelling portrait of single life on the other side of 30, and blessedly, it has nothing to do with the Dr. Luke saga. The healing may not be complete, but songs like these sure sound like moving on to me.

CREDIT: Craig McDean

CHART WATCH

Poor Halsey. She was in a perfect position to secure her second straight #1 album with Manic, and then out of nowhere Eminem surprise-released a new album. So instead, Music To Be Murdered By debuts atop the Billboard 200, breaking Em’s tie with Kanye West for the most #1 albums in a row. For his 10th straight #1, Marshall Mathers accumulated 279,000 equivalent album units and 117,000 in sales. Per Billboard, Eminem is now one of only six artists with 10 #1 albums, joining the Beatles (19), Jay-Z (14), Bruce Springsteen (11), Barbra Streisand (11), and Elvis Presley (10). In an interesting parallel, both Em and Kanye have only missed #1 once, with their debut albums, which both peaked at #2.

Manic meanwhile put up an impressive 239,000 units and 180,000 in sales — the week’s highest sales total, buoyed by a number of bundles packaging the album with concert tickets or other merch. Entering at #3 is Mac Miller’s posthumous Circles, which — with 164,000 units and 61,000 in sales — could have easily been #1 on a less crowded week. Billboard notes that this is the first time the top 3 have been debuts north of 164,000 units since the chart began ranking by equivalent album units rather than sales in December 2014. The rest of the top 10: Roddy Ricch, Post Malone, Selena Gomez, Moneybagg Yo, DaBaby, Harry Styles, and Billie Eilish, who I suspect will be climbing the charts again next week after her huge Grammy night.

Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” holds on to #1 on the Hot 100 for a third straight week, with Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” once again in at #2. Eminem and the late Juice WRLD’s “Godzilla” debuts at #3, becoming, per Billboard, Em’s 22nd top-10 hit and Juice’s third following “Lucid Dreams” and “Bandit.” The rest of the top 10: Post Malone’s “Circles,” Maroon 5’s “Memories,” Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber’s “10,000 Hours,” Tones And I’s “Dance Monkey,” Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne,” and Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me.”

POP FIVE

Demi Lovato – “Anyone”
The song is OK, but the raw honesty of the performance is piercing.

Lil Nas X – “Rodeo” (Feat. Nas)
Lil Nas X got Nas on a song, and immediately that song has become 10 times more memorable, for both musical and intangible cultural reasons. How does the kid play this game so well?

Jonas Brothers – “What A Man Gotta Do”
I missed this when it dropped earlier in the month, but last night’s Grammys broadcast alerted me to its existence. The performance did nothing for me (and I still wish Jonas Brothers hadn’t been gifted prime stage time) but I can already tell this chorus is going to worm its way into my life the way “Sucker” did.

H.E.R. – “Sometimes”
H.E.R. really is Alicia Keys 2.0, isn’t she? Fortunately she’s keeping up a young-Alicia batting average right now, which means her stuff is mostly pretty good even if it rarely blows me away.

Love Regenerator – “Hypnagogic (I Can’t Wait)” & “CP-1″
It is cool that Calvin Harris has decided to make ’90s rave music, but I really just want Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2.


NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber shared the first episode of his YouTube docuseries. [YouTube]
  • Alec Benjamin covered Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • Speaking of Capaldi, he released a video for “Before You Go.” [YouTube]
  • BLACKPINK and Pharrell Williams appear in a new Adidas commercial directed by Jonah Hill. [YouTube]
  • Here’s Post Malone’s commercial for Flamin’ Hot Limón Doritos. [Twitter]

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HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME

OK, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME