“What’s been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate. I’d like to show the world other sides of my personality. I don’t want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself. I have so much more to offer than that, and I can’t wait till the world really gets to hear that on the radio.”
— Kesha, Rolling Stone, 24 October 2013
“I got too many people / That I’d like to prove wrong” Kesha sings at the start of Rainbow, her voice sturdy and plaintive over a simply strummed acoustic guitar. The air is sweet, the chords simple. “All those motherfuckers,” she continues, “Been too mean for too long”. Preach.
Not even 30 seconds in, and it’s hard not to share in Kesha’s triumph. Gone is the girl who had a near-constant stream of chart-topping dance-pop hits and a trashy on-the-nose persona that was ripe for parody. In her place is the fully-formed songwriter that could co-write smashes for Britney Spears one day while collaborating with the Flaming Lips the next. Those who dug even a little past the obvious discovered that Kesha was always notably smarter than her public face let on (read any one of her witty, acerbic interviews to get a full scope of her powers), but starting in 2013, her life and image would soon be consumed by a truly horrific series of events.
While Kesha’s third full-length album arrives amid a wave of personal tragedy and public outcry, unfortunately, there’s no way to talk about it without mentioning the brutal context from which it emerged. After reading Haley Potiker’s devastating timeline recounting the history of the physical and mental control that super-producer Dr. Luke had over her life, your frustration may become palpable, even visceral. Lawsuits and countersuits came and went, the #FreeKesha movement turned into a sizable force, and after being told that she would still have to work with Luke due to an exclusivity clause in her contract, Luke was finally outed of the label he founded following these controversies, allowing Kesha to shed the glitter-strewn party-girl persona that launched her into pop stardom in the first place and put out music on her own terms.
While hardcore fans and casual onlookers alike may have their own idea of what a redemptive Kesha album may sound like, few could have predicted the scope, confidence, and badass swagger that Rainbow possesses. Yes, there are numerous allusions to letting go of her difficult past (the radio-ready “Learn to Let Go”), embracing forgiveness (“Praying”, “Bastards”), and living life loud and large (“Woman”, “Boogie Feet”), but in such a short span of time, she manages to eschew dance music entirely in favor of upbeat country crooners, one-off acoustic jokes, early ’00s mall-punk, and even some horn-driven funk-pop. The fingerpicked mid-tempo pop-rock of “Finding You” would have never been allowed on any of her previous efforts, which makes its profanity-peppered chorus (of which there are several on Rainbow) strike a vein of authenticity, coming from an emotionally honest place while simultaneously being tailored for maximum impact. “So when I say ‘forever’ / It’s the goddamn truth,” she coos, and damn if you aren’t inclined to believe her.
No longer bound to work with Luke, Kesha makes use of a wide set of collaborators here, often to surprising effect. Ben Folds helps produce the bombastic, Broadway-ready title track, while Macklemore’s right hand man Ryan Lewis imbues lead single “Praying” with a sawing orchestral backing and pounding drums, giving Kesha’s anthem of emotional clemency all the power it needs to land (and boy does it). Most curious of all is not one but two collaborations with heavy rockers Eagles of Death Metal, both of which end up veering dangerously close to Avril Lavigne territory. The first of them, “Let ’em Talk”, has a heard-it-once-and-it’s-in-your-head catchy chorus (as classic Avril songs are wont to do), while “Boogie Feet”, the goofier of the two, manages to sneak by with just a little bit of camp near the end, the call-and-response vocals recalling a bit of that oddball fun-for-the-hell-of-it B-52’s flavor.
Reread that last paragraph if you need to, because the fact that we’re referencing both The B-52’s and Avril Lavigne in the context of Rainbow is something worth celebrating. Kesha is still clearly working in the realm of broad catchall “pop music”, so much so that even a stomp-and-clap country number like “Hunt You Down” doesn’t feel remotely out of place here, every guitar line and wordless vocal hook the work of someone who truly understands the art of pop songwriting. (Plus it’s hard not to fall for this chorus: “You say you’ve had your fun / And that you’re done and I’m the one / Just know that if you fuck around / Boy, I’ll hunt you down”)
The number of acoustic and country-leaning numbers may give some of Kesha’s older fans some pause, but more likely than not, most saw her going in this direction some time ago. In early 2013, a few months after the release of her second album Warrior, Kesha put out a little-heard EP called Deconstructed, which featured new, minimalist arrangements of hits like “Die Young” and “Blow” with the help of the great pop producer Greg Kurstin. One of the songs on there was a cover of the Dolly Parton hit “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”, which, incidentally, was written by Kesha’s mom, Pebe. The arrangement was sparse and a bit spooky, but those who heard it could tell that even with her esteemed songwriting chops, Kesha was also a superlative vocalist when the opportunity allowed her to be. On Rainbow, she covers the song yet again, using a full band to amp up both the color and the optimism while Kesha harmonizes and trades off verses with none other than Dolly herself. It’s a sweet, touching moment as you hear these two very different singing styles compliment each other so easily, the girls reminding you that Pebe’s original hasn’t lost any of its verve since it first topped the country charts nearly four decades ago.
Yet make no mistake: as surprising and colorful as this Rainbow is, lesser fare like the sultry “Boots” and the disarmingly conventional “Hymn” keep it from becoming an outright masterpiece. However, lesser songs are better than outright-forgettable ones, and Kesha knows this, which is why all but two songs on the album aren’t allowed to go past the four minute mark, keeping this 14-disc set concise and to-the-point. Don’t like “Boots”? It’ll be over before you hit the skip button. Can’t wait to play the instant-classic Dap-Kings-powered “Woman” again as part of your weekend playlist? It’s already queued up and ready to roar. For the way that Rainbow hops from genre to genre with giddy glee, it’s amazing that the whole set ends up clocking in at under 50 minutes. Every song feels so carefully considered that by the time she drops in the two-minute acoustic goof of “Godzilla” near the end (performed in waltz time, no less), it feels completely in sync with the rest of the material that surrounds it.
While Rainbow may be initially defined by the context from which it emerged, the extraordinary vision that Kesha has put forth ensures that in due course, Rainbow will be remembered on its own merits: not only as the unquestionable best album she’s ever put out, but also one of 2017’s finest pop releases. Not many people could pull of catharsis with such a wink and a smile, but few artists working today have exhibited the resilience, sass, or sheer creative vision that Kesha possesses so naturally. She’s a motherfuckin’ woman, baby, and don’t you ever for get it.