Kesha takes the highest road on “Praying”

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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.

Vince Staples’ “Big Fish Theory” makes a convincing case for his intrepid nature

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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.  

9/10

On new album “Witness”, Katy Perry works hard to earn attention

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It doesn’t matter where you were from,” Katy Perry told fans as she wound down her four-day Witness World Wide live-stream, “It matters what you grow into”. Considering she was born to Pentecostal pastors, Perry’s metamorphosis into the pin-up poster girl for the centre-left is one of pop’s most fascinating.

Perry won’t get the props she deserves for “Chained to the Rhythm” – whipping up woke-politics and rainbow reggae-disco to create a hit with a solid message. Lyrically, it’s a frown at individualism and a wink at social consciousness. Musically, it’s a fresh update of her sound.

Many will decry her album campaign’s narrative as divisive, but this being Katy Perry, Witness isn’t that complex. On “Chained…”, she spends half her time asking questions (“Are we tone-deaf?” – Katy, you in danger girl) and rhyming “bubble” with “trouble”.

Perry’s always been style-over-substance, and when you’ve got industry heavyweights (Max Martin, Mike Will Made It) and budding virtuosos (Jack Garrett, Purity Ring) on speed dial, that’s not a bad thing.

“Hey Hey Hey” is a feminist sandstorm with ropy lyrics delivered in a drunk-cheerleader drawl. It’s elevated by a grinding dubstep bassline and an up-yours appeal. Synthpop whizz-kids Purity Ring carve trance ballad “Bigger Than Me” – written after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat – like an ice sculpture.

From a distance, “Bigger Than Me”, “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the unironically repetitive “Déjà Vu” echo the UK’s 2013 house revival. Of all the trends to draw from, it’s a durable one, but it does narrow the album’s commercial prospects.

Naturally, it’s when Perry does away with the flashy production that Witness really stumbles. The three ballads suffer from clunky phrasing (“I struggle / I juggle”), even when the choruses soar. That said, “Mind Maze” is a pristine take on The Knife circa Silent Shout, yet an utter bore melodically.

Witness occasionally excels in rethinking Perry’s creamy-tits brand of pop for 2017’s more subdued airwaves. “Tsunami” is a spongy bump-and-grind, making for a great one-two punch with the cherry-sweet banger “Bon Appétit”. “Roulette” spins the Tinder/Grindr experience (“I drop a pin to my location”) into an 80s-pop headrush.

Perry owes a debt to her guest stars, but the solo title track is a revelation. It’s the ideal intersection between her pop and ‘conscious’ selves – topping bubbling electronica and graceful piano with a hook of “Can I get a witness?” that begs for a response. As messy as Witness can be, songs like this show how Perry could conceivably earn one’s attention.

6.5/10

cupcakKe’s “Queen Elizabitch” delivers the sex-positive pop we deserve

cupcakKeSince last year’s minor viral hit “Vagina”, cupcakKe’s been cornering the sex-positive alt-hip-pop market. The Chicago-born rapper leaves little to the imagination – not only with graphic, spit-take one-liners (“I save dick by giving it CPR”), but by also committing to her fully-rounded persona for each and every song. 

cupcakKe dropped three mixtapes in 2016, and Queen Elizabitch is her first album proper. The bought-in beats are tighter, but the execution is scattered – pushing listeners off the dance floor and into a hard-faced confessional a little too often.

The split between Queen Elizabitch’s teeth-bearing hip-hop and X-rated dalliances with the mainstream works because neither style tries to diminish the virtues of the other. The cupcakKe eloquently recounting her impoverished childhood on “Scraps” is no more complex or worthy than the one asking to be creampied throughout “Cumshot”.

Vulgarity is the common thread – whether she’s marking her territory over menacing trap (“Bitch you ain’t hard / Probably run from the sound of a fart”), or giving life-saving blowjobs on the irresistible “Cpr”, which reworks “La Macarena” for 2017, and may be more quotable than Mean Girls.

The album continues the “Reality” saga from cupcakKe’s mixtapes. Part 4 charts the rapper’s torrid journey, and accepts her growing fame with grace. But as a dose of reality, it falls flat, simply because the character never feels like a fantasy. In fact, the body-positive “Biggie Smalls” overflows with humanity.

Furnished with tropical house synths and arpeggio squalls, it’s as commercial as Queen Elizabitch gets. What makes it special are actionable tips in lieu of dull platitudes, including “Fuck a dude if he don’t like small boobs”. There’s a gap in the market for such candour, and something tells us cupcakKe will have a great time filling it. 

8/10

Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” – “House-pop parfait with a cold, tart centre”

bon appetitForget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.

One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.  

The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!

Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” is a shaky six-minute pose

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For millennials, the past two years have been a crash course in uncertainty. Will the EU crumble? Should we ready our outfits for #nuclearholocaust? Go vox popping and you’ll find there’s only one thing the youth know for sure: Harry Styles will be a superstar.

Flanked by millions of fans and fêted by the media, Styles’ success is a rare inevitability. The One Direction heartthrob could afford to tear up the rulebook, but debut single “Sign of the Times” doesn’t even dog-ear a page for fear of creasing a holy text.

‘Sources’ were keen to cite David Bowie’s influence, apparent in the sense that he too had a Y chromosome and was known to sing over piano. At best, the song recalls Robbie Williams’ chest-puffing balladry – at worst, it’s a shaky six-minute pose.

Styles’ falsetto cuts through the neutered guitars and crashing drums, but strains to add meaning. Only a truly privileged artist can scream “We’ve got to get away!” while digging their heels into the safest sound imaginable. Now that’s a sign of the times.

Zara Larsson’s So Good: “Promising newcomer falls at the final hurdle”

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Zara Larsson and Rihanna share more than a cadence that’s catnip for radio.

Just like the Barbadian superstar circa 2006, Larsson holds immense promise, yet her international debut is at best a benign vessel for a half-dozen plastic-wrapped hits.

Last summer’s “Lush Life” is still a sticky party-starter with more choruses than sense. It’s also the best thing on So Good by far, and prefacing it with the feeble “What They Say”, a #motivational Instagram post set to music, is a telling cop-out.

A flexible singer, Larsson slings hooks like a sailor aboard everything from moody electro (MNEK duet “Never Forget You”), to schoolyard hip hop (“Ain’t My Fault”), to vogueing dance-pop (“I Would Like”). Aside from some killer singles, only “TG4M”’s dreamy tropical lilt really adds to her CV.

There’s never been a bigger gulf between title and song than on “Make That Money Girl”. That sassy name, along with the teenager’s unabashed feminism, suggests a banger for the ages, but its funereal beat is more befitting a documentary about sweatshop slavery.

Larsson has everything it takes to go A-list, but too often, So Good overlooks the spunky musicality that put her on the map. Drippy ballads like “Only You” and “One Mississippi” actively drain her charisma, and could be fronted by any Rihanna-lite ingenue.

Thank goodness then for Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” – a feel-good smash and vocal showcase that’s bought Team Larsson time to plan a crucial next move.

5.5/10

Grab some tissues and watch Clean Bandit’s self-directed “Symphony” clip below.