Album Review: Rita Ora’s ‘Phoenix’ Was Worth The Wait
For a while there, it looked like the Second Coming would arrive before Rita Ora’s sophomore album. Few projects in the history of pop have experienced as many setbacks and delays as Phoenix. The first incarnation (a dance-pop opus produced by Calvin Harris) was famously canned in 2014. The Brit then focused on R&B in 2015, releasing a best-forgotten duet with Chris Brown that became her lowest-charting single. Lesser mortals would have given up, but the plucky 28-year-old went back to the drawing board and came up with something remarkable.
At a time when pop is increasingly a dirty word, Rita’s collection of sparkly bops and bouncy bangers is revelatory. There is a scattering of weightier material including a couple of impressive ballads, but Phoenix really takes flight when the hitmaker embraces her destiny of being pop’s Party Girl. That’s not to say there aren’t shadows and light. In many ways, this is a concept album about relationships and the personal growth needed to be in one. The songs just happen to be accompanied by a danceable beat.
Let’s start with the singles (and there has been a lot of them). “Your Song” is catchy radio fodder, while “Lonely Together” has the distinction of being the late Avicii’s last big hit. Both are perfectly enjoyable, if a little safe. That can’t be said of “Anywhere.” A breezy pop oddity with a demented post-chorus breakdown, this doesn’t so much blur the line between pop and EDM as obliterate it. That willingness to experiment also permeates “Let Me Love You” — an unusually adult dance-pop moment about the fear of commitment.
Phoenix also houses “For You,” Rita’s Fifty Shades Freed duet with Liam Payne, but it sounds a little out of place. The same goes for the much-maligned “Girls.” While the criticism heaped on the singer’s bi-curious bop was largely unwarranted (it is based on her personal truth), that “red wine” lyric is unfortunate and Cardi B’s verse is an unintentionally hilarious travesty. I wish it had been left off the album.
Of the new tracks, “Only Want You” is the obvious standout. Another deceptively emotional song about dating fatigue and the urge to settle down, this sounds like a smash hit. “I don’t want another night of trying to find another you, another rock bottom,” Rita sings over sparse beats courtesy of Andrew Watt. “I don’t want to wear another mini dress to impress a potential problem.” She then pulls the vocal trigger on the chorus. “I don’t want somebody like you, I only want you.” It’s infinitely relatable and instantly catchy.
“New Look,” the handiwork of Swedish producers Jack & Coke, finds our heroine descending into a state of paranoia about suspected infidelity over crisp ’80s synths. Again, it’s an instant earworm. Not that it’s all doom and gloom. “First Time High” is a euphoric love song with a dreamy drop, while “Summer Love” — a collaboration with Rudimental — is the kind of drum & bass explosion that is destined to conquer the charts in the Europe and be completely ignored everywhere else. Which is a shame because I love it.
For a relatively long album (there are 16 tracks on the deluxe edition), there isn’t much in the way of filler. “Keep Talking,” an oddball collaboration with Julia Michaels, takes a couple of listens to click but lingers in the mind when it finally does. “Hell Of A Life” sounds like a reject from Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale, but that just makes me love it even more. “Soul Survivor” is more of a statement directed at haters (one Scotsman, in particular) than a pop song, but it feels fitting within the context of the album. All in all, Rita did what she had to do. And so much more.