The viral (and now Interscope) star incorporates hip-hop producers and nabs an "SNL" slot before her album debut. Finally, her voice is bigger than her controversial persona.
Translating her music to the live stage after a two-year hiatus, Del Rey tested new material at Brooklyn's Glasslands in September, taking the stage for a secret show under the alias Queen of Coney Island. Not meant for review, the gig drew criticism from attending writers, tipped off by rogue tweets, who criticized her shaky delivery and live band of session musicians.
"I was noticeably scared," says Del Rey, who popped her gum into the microphone throughout the performance. "I don't get onstage trying to be spectacular. I act like it's sort of still about the singing for me, because that's all I have so far, are the songs."
Del Rey didn't allow the litany of mostly harsh comments on YouTube clips from the show deter her. She upgraded her official New York debut to Bowery Ballroom, where she performed to a sold-out crowd, and then played to packed houses in London and Los Angeles. The reviews have turned laudatory. ("The comment-board fights and blog posts don't detract from the fact that she can actually sing," the Village Voice wrote of her Bowery gig.)
On her tracks, Del Rey, who initially described herself as the "gangster Nancy Sinatra," disaffectedly intones about both eternal and finite romance over cinematic arrangements garnished with hip-hop drums. Though indie artists like Bon Iver and St. Vincent shape-shift to respectively appear on cuts by rappers like Kanye West and Kid Cudi, Del Rey casually massages hip-hop into her stand-alone compositions, working directly with such producers as Jeff Bhasker (West, Jay-Z) and Emile Haynie (Cudi). Bypassing the almighty guest feature has supplied her enveloping tracks with a unique twist on indie-pop.
"I brought Emile in because the beats were still raw and hard to get... sort of the danger I wanted to incorporate," says Del Rey, who slings hip-hop slang ("You so fresh to death") on her cowgirl anthem "Blue Jeans." Friendships with the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye bolster her hip-hop credibility, but it's her effortless infusions that punctuate her tunes. "She wanted to integrate hip-hop into it because she loves [it] and added some beats to make it a bit more radio-friendly and palatable for a broader audience," Mawson says.
Just last month, the Internet fanfare reached new heights following the unauthorized leak of the intensely slick video for "Born to Die," making her a top trending topic on Twitter and earning praise from West, who broke his social network silence to post the clip to his account. For Del Rey, the relief wasn't the assurance of reaching a global audience, but rather having a budget for her art. "The good thing is that the record is beautiful. And I get to do so many things that I love. I get to work with [director Yoann] Lemoine and finally, I don't have to make my videos by myself anymore. Thank God. It's embarrassing," she says. "I'm just going to get help in all the right ways."
For an artist whose homemade approach shifted her career out of obscurity, her labels aren't concerned with losing her indie prowess. "It's not about old-school label tactics and all of that crap. It's really about helping an artist who has a clear-cut vision for herself, really bringing the muscle to make this work on a worldwide level," Jackson says. Unger Gamilton adds: "The real brilliant artists move the mainstream toward them, not the other way around. She's doing something that no one else is doing, and it's just going to draw people in. It's already drawing people in."
In anticipation of "Born to Die," the voluptuous-voiced songstress has been teasing the Web with sneak peeks of the project, releasing a graphic, found-footage video for "Off to the Races" and a YouTube clip of her song "Yayo." Her single, "Born to Die" was recently iTunes' Free Single of the Week. Del Rey also plans on "extensively touring" the international circuit through the new year. But she's almost entirely unplugged from the online realm, save for sporadic tweets and Facebook updates.
"I'd rather it was just as simple as being just the songs and no one else talking about it at all, because it makes things more bittersweet instead of just clear and easy," she says. "It just seems to have taken a funny turn. I'm not really sure if it'll come back around. I don't know. But the record is really good. I have that."
Steven J. Horowitz ( @speriod) is a New York-based journalist who serves as news editor at HipHopDX and associate editor at YRB magazine.