Review: On ‘Rainbow,’ Kesha Nods to the Past and Roars Into the Future
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There was a moment in 2010 when it felt like every pop star was singing the Song of Female Empowerment, which could conveniently also be marketed as a gay anthem: a super-catchy track about celebrating your eccentricities and showing your haters to the door. Katy Perry (“Firework”), Pink (“Raise Your Glass”) and Taylor Swift (“Mean”), still ensconced in Nashville, had one; Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was delivered early the following year. An upstart named Kesha released one, too — the No. 1 “We R Who We R,” a pounding electro-pop sister to her hit that ruled 2010 by every conceivable metric, “Tik Tok.”
Kesha’s two perky tracks and her rock ’n’ roll back story — she said she dropped out of high school to chase her musical dreams, and dropped into Prince’s house to deliver a demo CD — established her as a charming underdog, a raised fist of chipped nail polish to the established stars’ high-gloss manicures. She was sharp-tongued, goofy and most effective when battling an adversary. On her debut album, “Animal,” and its follow-up EP, “Cannibal,” the opponent was propriety (and sobriety). On her 2012 LP, “Warrior,” she added bullies and self-doubt.
On “Rainbow,” Kesha’s first new music since she featured on the rapper Pitbull’s twang-hop hit “Timber” in 2013, there’s no question who the enemy is: Dr. Luke, the hitmaker who shepherded all of her prior releases. In 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit seeking to end her recording and music publishing contracts with the songwriter and producer, who she said subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. Dr. Luke, born Lukasz Gottwald, denied the accusations and fired back with lawsuits of his own. As of now, the two are still legally tied, though Dr. Luke didn’t work on the new album.
“Rainbow,” out on Friday, faces a heavy lift: to establish a fresh sound for Kesha, now 30, apart from the synth-heavy, rap-sung vibe of her earlier releases; to speak to the emotional implications of her thorny legal battle; and perhaps most important, to tell us who she is today. The risk was that the record — like the live show she brought to New York in September — would grasp for a sound, ask for pity and rely on the conflict with Dr. Luke for all of its tension. But Kesha, who was executive producer on the album, chose a different path.
While she can’t resist opening with “Bastards,” a sweetly sung kiss-off to those who have underestimated and manipulated her, Kesha devotes most of “Rainbow” to exploring a broad palette of emotions and unleashing the full range of her voice — a flexible instrument she didn’t always effectively showcase on the bratty pop of her earlier albums. (Producers here include Ricky Reed, Drew Pearson and Ryan Lewis.)
While “Rainbow” includes a few songs that aspire to the cadences and production of radio and streaming hits today (the sing-songy “Hymn” and the ballad “Praying”), Kesha more often turns elsewhere for inspiration and swerves far from the synthetic sounds that drove her first two albums. There are a pair of jittery, punky collaborations with the Eagles of Death Metal (“Let ’Em Talk” and “Boogie Feet”) and two off-kilter tracks written with the songwriter Justin Tranter — “Finding You,” a love song that alternates between fingerpicked guitar and emphatic piano chords, and “Boots,” a sex song that gallops like a nuanced update of “Timber.”
“Rainbow” also includes frequent nods to the country-folk of Kesha’s youth. Her mother, the Nashville songwriter Pebe Sebert, shares writing credit on six tracks, including “Learn to Let Go,” an upbeat dose of pop therapy that ably connects the Keshas old and new. Dolly Parton wraps her tender warble around Kesha’s vocal on a version of Ms. Sebert’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).”
And there are signs that the old Kesha — the pop weirdo who cavorted onstage with oversize props and said her music was inspired by magic — is still lurking inside the new one. On the album’s two closing tracks, she imagines a relationship with Godzilla and describes an intergalactic rescue that will return her to her home galaxy.
Silly Kesha isn’t always the most musically satisfying Kesha. But on the frisky “Woman” she locks into a finger-wagging funk, with the Dap-Kings horn section providing some soulful oomph. And the real coup is what comes at the top of that track, before the music even starts: Kesha’s playful, giddy laugh.