Lady Gaga, "ArtPop" (Interscope)
The mission of some art, particularly the modern kind, is to provoke -- to present outlandish concepts, explore untraditional ideas, challenge traditional norms -- and leave you with many questions, searching for answers.
If that is the goal of Lady Gaga's fourth album, "Artpop," then she's already got a success on her hands. If the goal, however, is to entertain, then she fails, though at least she does it in her typical spectacular fashion.
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"My artpop could mean anything, anything, I try to sell myself, but I am really laughing because I love the music and not the bling," Gaga sings in a near monotone voice, backed by futuristic electrobeat, on the title track. And there lies the ultimate problem: For all its lofty goals, "ArtPop" the album comes off as vapid artifice, with Gaga relying on familiar dance grooves and nonsensical lyrics that may be provocative but convey very little.
"Donatella" paints the picture of a narcisstic, skin-deep model, with lines like, "I'm a rich (expletive), I'm the upper class ... I smoke Marlboro Reds and drink champagne." There's no storytelling there, though, and while the electrogroove is racing with energy, the disconnect with the lyrics makes it ultimately fall flat.
"Jewels N' Drugs" features T.I., Too Short and Twista, and the rappers are the most interesting part of this wanna-be gangsta ode to the love of the drug trade -- and that's not saying much. It sounds rather ridiculous with Gaga intoning: "Jewels n' drugs, play that hustle, smother 'em, if you wanna be bad, ain't nothing if it ain't family, we know how to make that money." Clearly, Pusha T and Rick Ross have no competition when it comes to drug lore.
"Sexxx Dreams" is an apparent girl-on-girl fantasy that's strikingly unsexy thanks to Gaga's unimaginative delivery: "I was thinking about you, hurts more than I can say, and it was kind of dirty, all night, and the way you looked at me, help." Yes, help is definitely needed on this track (it's as if she never listened to a Prince song).
R. Kelly teaches her something about sexy (and surprisingly not complete raunch) when he appears on one of the album's few bright spots: the midtempo groove "Do What U Want." But from that high the album veers to another misstep with the insult-driven "Swine."
The few moments that resonate are when it seems like we're hearing something that gives us true emotion from Gaga, or Stefani Germonatta. On the melancholy ballad "Dope," Gaga soars as she admits her failings but begs for one more chance from her loved one, singing, "I need you more than dope." It's powerful and touching, and is truly heart-stirring.
"Gypsy" is another strong song, as Gaga explains her love of her whirlwind touring life to someone who wants to see her more stationary: "Don't want to be alone forever but I can be tonight," she sings.
But rarely do we get that kind of heartfelt sentiment. Instead "Artpop" draws from familiar themes we've already heard on "Born This Way" and "The Fame," and it sounds like someone who is stuck very much in the same place artistically -- ironic, given how badly Gaga wants to be seen as an artist. In the end, "Artpop" is a piece of pop art that ultimately fails in its mission.