2009’s party classic “TiK ToK” may have sold Kesha – she’s dropped the “$” for now – as a one-note character, but it was one others wanted to play. A force at her initial peak, she wrote Britney Spears’ hit “Till the World Ends”, and had her schtick jacked by Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), Miley Cyrus and LMFAO.
For all the bludgeoning EDM and Auto-Tune, there was a perceptibly punk bent to Kesha Sebert’s music. She can belt like a rock star, but knows dance music is more conducive to free love than any other.
“Praying” – her first single in four years, and first shot at a ballad release – is upsetting for many reasons, but the shadow it casts over her dollar-sign days is its first knife-twist. Addressing her troubling legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, Kesha takes the high road, and seeks to see the best in her abuser.
Religious references abound, but more so musically then lyrically. Ryan Lewis’s piano is the song’s backbone, propping up a quiet, dignified chorus, even as it blossoms into a stomping country-gospel rapture: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing”.
Kesha’s naked vocal is impressive, and her zesty, adenoidal tone channels the melody better than any studio trickery could. A quiet admission of “I’m proud of who I am” is the link between her old and new material. Kesha’s self-love has suffused her search for both carnage and catharsis – so as long as she has it, the party is far from over.
Collecting work from considerable talent, Vince Staples’ fantastic sophomore LP Big Fish Theory is a puzzle of rich, disparate dance influences – and no one’s in a hurry to put the pieces together.
Opener “Crabs In a Bucket” takes a minute to morph into witchy UK garage. The rapper’s eventual appearance scans as fleeting, though he ably fires back at white supremacy: “They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet.” In its final lap, the track goes for broke with a come-hither verse from Kilo Kish.
Even the swaggering crunk of “Big Fish” (“Counting up the hundreds by the thousands”) gives way to a rug-pulling soundbite from the late Amy Winehouse. Carried by pitter-patter percussion, “Alyssa Interlude” tastefully ties the beloved singer’s death to a loss that’s closer to home for Staples: “Sometimes, people disappear.”
Swerving from ex-svengali No I.D (producer of 2015’s Summer ’06, and this year’s 4:44 by Jay-Z) and his stark experimental hip-hop was a gallant move by Staples.
There’s myriad collaborators and guest artists – fellow Comptonite Kendrick Lamar, Damon Albarn, ASAP Rocky… – on board, but with just five credits, it’s Staples’ longtime friend / first-time creative partner Jack Sekoff who sets a clubby template for the 12-track set. Under his guidance, Big Fish Theory oozes like a Class A.
The clacking hip-house arrangements of “Love Can Be…” and “Party People” leave ample room for Staples’ smartass flow. He piledrives the political elite with quips like “Propaganda / Press pan the camera”, and on “BagBak”, incites a social revolt the youth could really get behind: “Tell the president to suck a dick / because ‘we own ya!’”
Marrying SOPHIE’s unnerving cacophonies with Flume’s frosty future bass, “Yeah Right” is a veritable haunted house of a song. Rusty tin can drums, earthquaking bass and Kendrick Lamar await Staples in the shadows, but still he barges through. That he comes out fighting on the other side is testament to his intrepid nature.