In her recent autobiography, the Nashville native writes about the intense pressure of following up her massively successful debut album. Many critics were already treating K$ like she had an expiry date stamped on her face. After all, she was the party girl famous for sing-talking her way through heavily-Autotuned club-bangers about sexting and vomiting in closets. It didn’t exactly spell career longevity.
So what did Lady Dolla do? She lifted her game and invented her own genre — a heady mix of ’70s rock, cutting-edge electronica and drowsy rapping known as cock-pop. It was an audacious plan, but Ke$ha makes the transformation from electro-pop diva to intergalactic wild child with jaw-dropping ease. Warrior is a non-stop aural assault of fresh ideas and new sounds that document the singer’s journey from being L.A.’s self-confessed worst waitress to chart-conquering pop titan.
And yet, for such a devastatingly original piece of work, the first two singles have been conspicuously conventional — at least on the surface. While “Die Young” and “C’Mon” don’t reflect the wild ride you’re about to take, they quietly and cleverly subvert the electro-pop genre. Lead single “Die Young” seems to pick up where Animal left off. Lyrically, the Nate Ruess-co-penned pop anthem covers familiar territory, though the snare drums hint at a move towards a more organic sound, and the production has a fuzzy indie-pop bent that is fully explored later.
“C’Mon” could also be described as a safe choice until you pay attention to the words. The scene Ke$ha sets, lyrically, wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters movie. “I’m in a crop top like I’m working at Hooters,” quips the renowned wordsmith while Dr. Luke’s hazy synths explode like warm beer from a dropped can of Bud. By the time that monumental chorus arrives, you’re so lost in K$’s body-paint-stained world that you hardly notice “C’Mon” was ruthlessly engineered for radio domination.
In her Dostoevsky-eclipsing literary debut, Ke$ha confesses that Dr. Luke was concerned radio wouldn’t accept her new sound. As such, the first two singles act as a bridge to previously unexplored terrain. The super-producer deserves an enormous amount of credit for helping his muse create a psychedelic universe that is boldly experimental yet undeniably commercial. It’s a dizzying tightrope walk that completely reinvents the blond, beard-loving poet.
K$ has always behaved like a rock star. Now she has the sound to go with it. “Thinking Of You” is a raised middle finger of a song that eases the listener into Rock$ha. There’s an unmistakeable pop element — think of it as a futuristic take on Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” — but the pied piper of party animals drags her ex with fury of a woman scorned. “I was down for you hardcore before I heard you were out trying to score,” she berates her former flame before adding “found out you’re full of it, I’m over it, so suck my dick!” Well, then.
The transformation continues on the surf-rock-flavored “Only Wanna Dance With You.” The first Max Martin co-production is an absolute highlight. The melody is reminiscent of Pink’s “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” However, the retro-tinged chorus belongs to a different era entirely. This is a toe-tapping triumph that screams future single.
“Dirty Love,” Ke$ha’s much-hyped duet with punk legend Iggy Pop is similarly brilliant. A wave of crunching guitars and snappy drumbeats underpin line after line of lyrical brilliance. Here she calibrates her words with the simplicity and honesty of Charles Bukowski and revels in the seedy side of life, writing about roach sex and piss-tasting champagne with the same passion and enthusiasm as she does first love and loving relationships.
Speaking of noteworthy lyrics, the hitmaker begins “Gold Trans Am” by growling, “Pull over, sucker, and now spread ‘em, let me see what you’re packin’ inside that denim!” It turns out to be the album’s standout track. This is a brilliantly constructed and conceived ode to southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hands-in-the-air, arena anthems don’t come much better. If any one song captures the essence of cock-pop, then this is it.
After revitalizing rock music, the warrior princess tries her hand at rap. “Crazy Kids” could well be the album’s trippiest experiment. The eerie whistled intro hints at a retro experience, but then the atomic beats drop and K$ unleashes her flow. It’s an oddly moving excursion into the unknown with a wistful chorus that sits uncomfortably — yet perfectly — with the rapped verses.
“Supernatural” is a similarly twisted offering. Did you know that Ke$ha was once penetrated by a ghost? She celebrates the unusual sexual experience with some of the hardest beats found on a mainstream pop album this year. The electronic breakdowns are an out-of-body experience and the unexpected splash of piano ties the track to the rest of the album. The end result is creepy and vaguely reminiscent of the X-Files theme song.
It’s not all balls-out rock or club-shaking dance anthems. Some of the highlights show the 25-year-old’s softer side. “Wonderland” is our first taste of down-tempo K$, and it’s an intoxicating brew. She sings about her pre-fame days with affection and a note of melancholy. The beautiful piano ballad proves the glitter bug is just as adept at quiet reflection as she is at club carnage.
“Last Goodbye” is perhaps the most emotional song on Warrior. It would be nice to hear this on radio at some stage, because it showcases a tenderness that non-believers would struggle computing. The “woahs” and “la la las” are the prettiest hooks ever to grace a Ke$ha song, while the lyrics are unexpectedly gorgeous. “Now you’ve got a girl, someone new, and I can’t pretend to just be cool,” muses the ever-insightful songstress. The production is equally complex: the whistles and claps give the song a folk element and we’re pretty sure we hear a banjo in there somewhere. This is probably the only Ke$ha song you will ever be able to riverdance to!
Warrior is the most fully-realized and cohesive pop album since Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream or Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster. The difference is that this musical journey feels more authentic. Unlike those fabulous divas, Ke$ha isn’t playing a character or channeling an alter-ego. This is her demented diary set to music.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: Too many to mention. “Supernatural,” “Only Wanna Dance With You,” “Last Goodbye,” “Dirty Love” and “Thinking Of You” spring to mind.
Pops like: An episode of The Flintstones on acid.
Best Listened To: As often as possible.
Idolator Rating: 4/5
— Mike Wass