A solid half-decade has passed since producer RedOne and songwriter Akon laced the vocals of an unassuming NYU-dropout named Stefani Germanotta onto one of the most infectious synth-pop beats ever crafted. The result was an inescapable party jam that confidently assured us all, “[It’s] gonna be okay, da-doo-doo-mmm / Just dance.”
The result: a smash sensation of 21st century radio and global icon otherwise known as Lady Gaga. The hype and hysteria generated by her three megahit albums – not to mention the outfits, music videos, world tours and pa-pa-paparazzi scuffles – need no introduction. It’s common knowledge that this woman has conquered the world.
However, in the two years since her last album “Born This Way” (2011), the flames of Gaga madness have been reduced to a simmer. Gaga found herself facing tough competition from rival pop divas like Adele, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus, who were all vying to become the new radio queen. The singer finds herself at a creative crossroads. Should she experiment with new styles at the risk of failing miserably or stick to her defining musical style – the one that transformed her into a star – even if critics cried artistic standstill?
In “ARTPOP,” the answers to this question are varied. Lyrically and thematically, the songs of the album rarely stray from the standard set by their predecessors. Gaga’s most recognizable lines are tweaked only slightly: “We live for the fame, fame, baby” (from 2008’s “The Fame”) is reiterated as, “I live for the applause-plause,” on her new lead single, “Applause.” Meanwhile, “You and me could write a bad romance,” (from 2009’s “Bad Romance”) has been modified to, “Let me be the girl under you that makes you cry,” on the puzzling sex track “G.U.Y.” And of course, listeners will hear the syllable “ah,” three-times-repeated, on numerous occasions – and who would have it any other way?
The record’s lyrical topics are distinctly familiar. Gaga urges her fans, critics and suitors to believe that while over-the-top excesses of celebrity life are sometimes too readily embraced, love will always trump money in the end. She taps into masturbatory fantasies on “X Dreams” and “G.U.Y.,” two tracks reminiscent of previous hits like “So Happy I Could Die” (2009) that question whether such perverse desires can ever be meaningfully realized.
Unfortunately, because this is her fourth album to focus on the same type of themes, the effect is simply not as thrilling as before. On her debut album, “The Fame” (2008), it was fantastic to aurally accompany Gaga on her ride in the fast lane. Five years later, though, the same ride is beginning to feel stale.
Thankfully, Gaga is noticeably more adventurous on the sonic level. With “Aura,” the singer kicks off “ARTPOP” by inviting two international electronica acts – Russian-German electro house master Zedd and Israeli psytrance duo Infected Mushroom – for a sound unlike any she’s ever concocted before. Gaga later teams with veteran hip-hop producer Rick Rubin on the unexpectedly moving electronic rock lament “Dope.” Other capable producers, including France’s Madeon and Chicago’s DJ White Shadow, keep the record musically engaging for most of its 15-track duration.
Having only ever invited one rapper for a guest verse on her first three albums – Flo Rida on “Starstruck” – Gaga branches out by bringing forth three emcees on a single track. A self-parody, “Jewels N’ Drugs,” features T.I., Too $hort and Twista. R. Kelly does more of his signature pro-baby-making crooning on “Do What U Want,” an “ARTPOP” highlight and one of Gaga’s lone ventures into the field of R&B.
However, Gaga has yet to make an album with more than two non-solo cuts. Given that her duets have often been among her most enjoyable songs – including “Telephone” with Beyonc? and the one that started it all, “Just Dance” with Colby O’Donis – perhaps Gaga should consider making room for more collaboration on her future discs. “Cheek to Cheek,” her upcoming joint release with jazz singer Tony Bennett, represents a trend that she should have initiated at least one record earlier.
In the end, “ARTPOP” lacks the innovation that made Lady Gaga a sensation at the start of her career. Still, Gaga begins the record by asking, “Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?” and ultimately offers enough entertainment value across “ARTPOP” to make it a worthwhile proposition. She remains one of pop music’s most engaging figures, and for good reason.