[7 December 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The killjoys who dismissed Ke$ha’s debut Animal as one-dimensional party-girl trash will make hay with her new EP Cannibal, assuming they’re still paying attention. Over the course of eight new songs—in the ‘80s, this would’ve been called an “album”—Ke$ha details the precise order in which she’ll devour an unfortunate male’s body parts, at one point comparing herself to Jeffrey Dahmer. (Too soon!) She threatens, “You don’t wanna mess with us / Got Jesus on my neck-a-lace,” a glittery Crusader. Thanks to the infamous “Grow a Pear”, an emasculation of some poor guy who chose talking over sex, Cannibal is likely the first Top 40 album to use the word “mangina”. Even the sweet kiss-off “C U Next Tuesday” will never get the Radio Disney play it deserves, because Radio Disney programmers know how to spell.
Give her this: K’s a far more convincing man-man-maneater than Neko Case. Neko’s got more powerful lungs, but she also sounds more amenable to reason, and more predictable. With Neko, you know you’re gonna get carefully crafted songs, well-sung and thoughtful. With Ke$ha, you might get a passable straightforward pop vocal, but that tends to be her least interesting mode. (“The Harold Song” is the only one here that sounds “faceless”, a favorite insult of the killjoys.) More likely, she’ll start rapping, or rap-singing, or one of her highly-paid henchmen will transform her voice into something you’ve never heard before. Once this stuff starts happening, all bets are off. Ke$ha obviously doesn’t care whether you like the way she’s singing—or at least, she goes to great lengths to create that impression—and this sociopathic Dahmer quality makes her one of the most exciting singers around.
“Cannibal” opens the EP with a blank-eyed rap, delivered almost in monotone, and then explodes into a chorus of at least three different Auto-Tuned voice effects. During the second verse Ke$ha breaks out her party-girl voice. Now, this voice is plainly an act. When K speaks in an interview, she sounds like a normal Midwesterner—some lazy Valley vowels aside, she could be a nightly news anchor. In song, she lays down a calculated mix of diphthongs, growly Midwestern “errrrr”s, and even some southern tics; so the phrase “stir my tea” comes out “sterr mah teeeeeeah”. If there’s a guiding principle to her cobbled “accent”, it seems to be “sound as improper as possible”. This back-and-forth, between unrefined Eliza Doolittle impropriety and blatant computer manipulation, would justify a couple online theses. Above all, it’s Ke$ha’s way of selling her transgressive pop-music niche.
But wait! We haven’t even touched on the coolest vocal effect in “Cannibal”, where K’s wordless yodel stretches into a woozy vibrato. The EP’s martial synth beats often sound like producers Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco are going through the motions, but they continue to splatter their singer with novel vocal effects; she’s their favorite Auto-Tune canvas. Their best tune is “Grow a Pear”, whose cute little melody ties together K’s insults like some castrating gift bow.
Also great is “Sleazy”, K’s M.I.A. move—she disses “bougie friends”—with a booming beat courtesy producer Bangladesh (Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli”). Rappin’ Ke$ha rattles off a well-constructed string of rapid-fire syllables; rap’s still not her steez, but you can tell she works hard at it. And Scritti Politti vet David Gamson, who produced two of the least characteristic (and best) songs on Animal, is back for “C U”. Nothing earthshaking happens to K’s voice on this song, but its light throwback vibe is a great way to end the album—at least, if you turn it off before the boring Billboard remix of “Animal”. Which you will.
When K presents herself as a party girl, she’s a specific party girl. She’s vivacious and self-aware and kind of mean, unmistakably Ke$ha. Her one attempt at a serious breakup song, that stupid “Harold Song”, fails not because she can’t do three dimensions, but because it’s a dull song and she sings it like Katy Perry. But through most of Cannibal, she does the maneater thing as convincingly as PJ Harvey, Gillette, or Anthony Hopkins.