As a colleague of mine recently noted, you have to be really smart to make music this dumb.
Ke$ha has become incredibly ubiquitous in an extremely short amount of time, everything about her screaming “manufactured pop diva” but a surprisingly small amount of these criticisms actually holding water (or in her case, whiskey). As easy as it is for people to mock her hedonistic sorority-girl party jams (and it is incredibly easy — and fun, to boot!), Ke$ha has done something that few other dance divas have done in the course of their entire careers: she’s crafted a wholly unique identity and personality for herself, and in the increasingly crowded realm of soundalike pop radio, it’s that very thing that has helped make her stand out. As much as people bemoan the loose morals of her lyrics, it’s easy to forget that she actually keeps things grounded on a very basic emotional level (often either searching out for or rejecting a relationship with a potential guy), because when you play the sole intention as “to party”, you end up with deplorable garbage like this.
In truth, Ke$ha is fully conscious of what she’s doing, writing all of her songs and being one of the people to actually tell pop uber-producer Dr. Luke (who has helped craft virtually all of her songs on top of being a go-to for Katy Perry and Britney) what to do, outright banning guitars on her first album because she knew exactly the sound she was going for. She loves the tiny details, which is why instead of writing about getting drunk on Hennessy, she talks about being attracted to guys that “look like Mick Jagger” while throwing on her favorite CDs in the car — very antiquated notions that show how unafraid she is as a writer to put her entire self into her songs; these details help define her rather than hinder her. Toss in her co-writing of the best Britney song in years, her positively bonkers collaboration with the Flaming Lips, and the fact that she actually covered Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” on her Deconstructed EP and pulled off an amazingly faithful take on it, and you realize that there is much more to Ke$ha than meets the eye (you have to get past a lot of glitter first).
Thus, Warrior — Ke$ha’s second full-length proper, following a stop-gap EP and a remix album — comes with heightened expectations: can she pull off her unique brand of immediate dance-pop and keep it fresh or will she end up simply retreading the same paths she’s wandered down before, a sure one-way ticket to one-hit-wonderdom? The answer, surprisingly, is a little bit of each, because when you get right down to it, Warrior is a pretty awesomely weird pop disc with very few flaws.
The disc opens with the title track, which initially starts with all of the electronic building motions we’re all too familiar with in modern pop radio, all rising action leading to four-on-the-floor climax, but when she starts rapping on the verses — lyrics about how it’s OK to be who you are (a recurring theme in her discography), that she’ll “cut the bullshit out with a dagger”, and at one point rhyming “saber tooth tiger” with “Budweiser” — the typical synths give way to some furious rock bass work more typical of The Rapture than of Jessie J, giving the track a rather thunderous, thrilling edge. Lead single “Die Young”, however, works despite its obvious melodic setbacks: the opening acoustic guitar riff is photocopied wholesale from Dr. Luke’s work on Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling”, and “yeah”/”uh-huh” backing vocals heard at 1:11 are pulled wholesale from the same moment on Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, another song that Dr. Luke produced. While Luke certainly has an ear for radio, he winds up copying his own material so much that his tracks frequently sound like amalgamations of hits he’s already done. Fortunately, Ke$ha’s lyrics — in this case consisting of a carefree attitude that’s not too far removed from the mindset of her debut — help in keeping the song from sounding completely like every other track on the radio (but not by much).
What’s perhaps Warrior‘s biggest weakness is the fact that there are a few songs — especially on the album’s onset — that break the one rule that Ke$ha seems to have set for herself: they have to be interesting. “Crazy Kids” feels like Ke$ha doing an imitation of herself, using tired bass beats and another Flo Rida-referencing vocal tic (the whistle from, well, “Whistle“), resulting in song that feels that feels remarkably tossed off. Carrying on in this vein is “All That Matters (The Beautiful Life)”, which has title that references Cannibal‘s “Crazy Beautiful Life” and a vocal cadence and mood that bears far too many similarities to the Animal track “Blind” — proving that perhaps she’s spending a bit too much time with Dr. Luke, Frankensteining new songs together out of old ones, resulting in something half-remembered, half-new, and all around boring.
After these small hiccups, however, things start taking some interesting, surprising turns: “Thinking of You” is a punchy guitar-pop kissoff that’s more garage rock than party pop (recalling some of Kelly Clarkson’s more interesting rock diversions), and it feels looser and freer than anything else on her previous records — the rock girl pose is one that suits her well. Continuing on in this vein, she brings in special guest Iggy Pop to sing on the Joplin-esque growler “Dirty Love”, which features Pop singing lines like “Santorum did it / in a V-neck sweater / Pornos produce it / But wild child can do it better”. It’s a bizarre, remarkably fun matchup, playing well into her fetish for aging, masculine rock types, and by clocking in under three minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome in the least. The addition of guitars, as small a thing as it is, proves liberating to her sound, as Warrior features a far greater range of textural diversity than what we’ve heard in the past.
Then, of course, there are the out-and-out surprises, like the Blondie-esque six-string pop of “Only Wanna Dance With You”, featuring dry, bright guitar lines, and a remarkable lack of synth work this time out (listen to that guitar solo taking center stage, for example), the whole thing working as a soundtrack to Ke$ha designing her own black-and-gold poodle skirt to wear to prom. The closer “Love Into the Light”, meanwhile, is probably the closest Ke$ha gets to confessional balladry, as a very ’80s synth wash (provided by The Bird & the Bee’s Greg Kurstin) allows her to admit she has some bad tattoos, is proud of her differences, and is sadly not a role model — that latter fact being something she sounds genuinely regretful about (which may very well be a calculated stance given how she’s built up her own image in her own way, but as a wry deconstruction of it, it’s endlessly fascinating). Then, perhaps most surprisingly, there’s “Wonderland”, a contemplative country song that features Patrick Carney from the Black Keys. Much like Lady Gaga’s similar (and quite excellent) Born This Way diversion “You & I”, Ke$ha brings in some very basic piano, a few slide guitars, and lowers the tempo considerably for a song she could very well play at the CMA awards without (many) repercussions. The song details her early days of living out of her car, finding her way back to the place of basic happiness, and unlike her previous attempts at out-and-out sincerity, “Wonderland” feels like it’s coming from a genuine place of emotion. It’s not tear-jerking by any means, but it shows a vulnerability to her facade that’s always been just underneath the surface of her songs (something that is amplified by “Love Into the Light”), and although it could be mined even deeper in the future, this proves to be a quite excellent start.
In truth, there’s a lot of fascinating sonic detours that Ke$ha takes with Warrior, all while retaining the bratty edge that has made her the star that she is today. Not everything works, but for a major label pop album, the ratio of material that succeeds is notably high, as on her sophomore release, she’s already willing to take some risks with her sound. For those willing to shell out a few more bucks, the deluxe edition of Warrior closes with another collaboration with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne called “Past Lives”, a quirky, emotional ballad that is one of the most straight-forward, heart-rendering things that Coyne has done in years, some high-toned guitar picking leading into moody synth washes for a track that, when all is said and done, comes off as “sweet” — one of the last adjectives one would ever use to describe her music.
Then again, we shouldn’t be too surprised. As Warrior proves, Ke$ha is fully aware of the image she’s established and how to cleverly deviate it from it at just the right moment. She’s easy to mock because of her apparent lack of depth, but the frightening truth of the matter is that Ke$ha is an incredibly smart woman, and with Warrior surprising us at almost every turn, she knows exactly what she’s been doing all along.