While most mainstream musicians care deeply about both the details of their music and the way that music is presented to the world, Lady Gaga is the hardest-working artist in pop music because she makes absolute certain that every inch of her craft evolves and innovates. Her first major hit, "Just Dance," is a cleverly constructed account of being deliriously drunk but stringing together a solid evening; because it posed as an enduring electro-pop jam, that cleverness was bestowed to a huge audience. Since then, Gaga has done everything in her power to turn pop music into a grounds for discovery that goes beyond face value, from bold fashion selections to sprawling live set-ups to artiste collaborations to cultural engagements that go well beyond the transition of a verse into a chorus. When Gaga wanted to herald a social movement, she focused the first single on her pivotal "Born This Way" on LGBTQ rights; when she wanted to clue the unaware in on the magic of Jeff Koons, she hired the world-class artist to create a nude replica of her "Fame" persona for her latest album cover. Sure, there are times when the simple pleasure of a verse and a chorus is enough to satisfy, but Gaga has always demanded more -- and when she has found success, she has upheld achievements that no other pop artist has sniffed.
"ARTPOP," the follow-up to "Born This Way," naturally abides by this far-reaching ambition and looks to re-think the "pop album" as an entity, even more than Lady Gaga's last album did. It's not surprising that "ARTPOP" will be packaged with an interactive app that blends music, art, fashion and technology together, since that is precisely what "ARTPOP" the album tries to actualize; Gaga is grasping more cultural trinkets than ever before, and wants to synthesize them into one mind-blowing, 15-song statement. When Gaga balances these skyward designs with dynamic songwriting -- when she successfully mixes the 'art' with the 'pop,' if you will -- the results are often euphoric. "Dope" and "Gypsy" are compelling accounts of personal hell and heaven on the back half of the album, and when the midway run of the seductive "Sex Dreams," boisterous "Jewels n' Drugs," effervescent "MANiCURE" and slithering "Do What U Want" takes hold, it's a long-player experience unlike anything a pop fan will hear this year. Of course, some of the more convoluted tracks sputter out before Gaga can carry her vision through, but even the weakest moments on "ARTPOP" are so carefully built and ardently imagined that one cannot help but admire the effort.
Coherently channeling R&B, techno, disco and rock music as a pop artist while discussing sex, drugs, lust, God, fame and creativity, Lady Gaga has offered fans her most sonically and lyrically diverse album to date. "ARTPOP" is imperfect, but so is its creator. It is a complicated album that should be applauded (pun intended) for inspiring interpretation, as well as telling fans that it's also okay to just dance.
Which songs on "ARTPOP" are our personal favorites? Check out our track-by-track take on Lady Gaga's latest album.
Two years after kicking off "Born This Way" with the inspiring "Marry The Night," Gaga begins "ARTPOP" under an exotic shroud, relating Muslim culture to the trappings of her famous lifestyle. "Enigma pop star is fun, she wear burqa for fashion/It's not a statement, as much as just a move of passion," Gaga spits on a song that positions "ARTPOP" as an album with ambitious ideas and breakneck electronic passages.
A mash-up of astrology, Roman mythology and sex, "Venus" is the first song Gaga produced by herself, and mines a gooey disco groove that the singer fully exploits in the brassy pre-chorus. The planned second single from "ARTPOP" that got shuttled for "Do What U Want," "Venus" misses the mark on some of its double entendres ("You're out of this world/Galaxy, space and time!" Gaga cries), most notably on the intergalactic outro; still, it's easy to identify Gaga's passion toward the concept, and she tries her darnedest to pull it off.
3. G.U.Y. - After blasting off to sensual heaven on "Venus," Gaga returns to Earth for "G.U.Y." (which stands for 'Girl Under You,') a shuddering dance siren that makes the distinction between gender equality and willful sexual submission. Zedd's hornet's nest of production swarms Gaga's provocative commands, and the sucker-punch of the hook hammers the message home to create the first true "ARTPOP" standout.
4. Sex Dreams - And here's where the sexuality and synth-pop pleasures of "ARTPOP" fully bloom: "Sex Dreams," in which Gaga balances a disintegrating relationship and a lustful fantasy, similarly juggles a pastel-colored 80's aesthetic and R-rated breakdown of unspoken desire. At the "I can't believe I'm telling you this…" conclusion, Gaga sounds loose and light-hearted, letting her audience twirl around on the dance floor.
5. Jewels n' Drugs (feat. T.I., Too $hort and Twista) - The transition between the starry-eyed "Sex Dreams" and T.I. thumping his chest at the start of "Jewels n' Drugs" is more than a little jarring, and the Gaga-assisted hip-hop summit exists in its own grimy world on "ARTPOP." Kudos to Gaga for refracting her latest tale of fame addiction through the prism of hip-hop, as well as tapping a world-class veteran like Twista to help get the job done.
6. MANiCURE - An obvious choice for a future single, the buoyant "MANiCURE" provides everything that a pop fan aching for a new "Pokerface" would want. With a chorus that's grafted onto the listener's brain after a single listen, double-meanings stemming from shouts of "MAN! CURE!" and a colorful arrangement highlighted by a funk guitar breakdown, this ode to superficial perks graces the high ceilings of Gaga's hits.
7. Do What U Want feat. R. Kelly
This R. Kelly duet was never supposed to be a radio single before the release of "ARTPOP," but the darkly lit synth-n-B track exploded upon release, and plans promptly changed. The most surprising aspect of "Do What U Want" is how seamlessly Gaga's wail and Kelly's croon fit together -- from the soul veteran's opening demand to turn the mic up to Gaga's unyielding cries at the song's end, the pair have envisioned a specific blueprint for their theatrical collaboration, and execute it efficiently.
8. ARTPOP - "My ARTPOP could mean anything," Gaga sings on the album's title track, while later adding, "Come to me, without your subtext and fantasy." Gaga is an artist that creates for the sake of creation, and this is her manifesto, set over a lurching electro-jazz beast that grows wilder with each passing second.
9. Swine - Gaga transports her listeners to an angry corner in her mind on the shrieking industrial number "Swine." The singer sounds physically disgusted as she cuts an "animal" out of her life, and the squealing keyboards concoct a sense of mayhem as she rails against the unnamed pig. "Swine" isn't as accessible or cleverly penned as other "ARTPOP" tracks, yet as far as detours go, this one's fascinating.
10. Donatella - Whisking pop fans into the fashion world and squaring her sights on one of the strongest figures in that medium, Gaga turns "Donatella" into an anthem for the outcasts that have a right to feel gorgeous. Unlike "G.U.Y.," Zedd's production work here doesn't quite hypnotize, but like that earlier "ARTPOP" track, Gaga embraces the pointedly playful concept wholeheartedly.
11. Fashion! - Perhaps the most straightforward on "ARTPOP," "Fashion!" is a fist-pumping throwback that is unafraid to play up its campiness and exalt the process of "looking good and feeling fine." An inoffensive partner to "Donatella" on the track list, "Fashion!" once again underlines the suggestion that Gaga's impact on culture extends well beyond the music world.
12. Mary Jane Holland - Peer beyond the weed references and focus on the intensity of whirring beats soundtracking them -- "Mary Jane Holland" finds Gaga dabbling in a sea of squelchy rhythms, which eventually pull back and float over the admission, "I know that Mom and Dad think I'm a mess/But it's all right, because I am rich as piss." Searching for answers in the form of a new identity, Gaga's voice survives just long enough to outlast the EDM storm.
"Mary Jane Holland" hinted at addiction in the line "I love, love you better than… my darkest sin," and on the excellent "Dope," drugs are equated to the one thing Gaga needs most… other than the man that might save her life. The ballad is constructed in a manner that recalls a Broadway show-stopper, but the electronics pulsating beneath the percussion grounds the song in contemporary pop. Gaga sounds broken here, and the effect is bruising and brilliant.
14. Gypsy - It's okay if you try to resist the chills shooting down your spine during this epic paean to navigating an unknown road and trusting instincts -- just know that it's a lot more fun if you give in and rock out. "I don't want be alone forever… but I can be tonight," Gaga winks in the chorus of this sing-along, which draws from the classic rock palette of her "Born This Way" album and only gets more cocksure as it races toward the end.
Gaga has said that she envisions playing "ARTPOP" from start to finish in concert, and if that's the case, first single "Applause" will make for a pretty thrilling encore. The verses are still a bit clunky, but the hook is even more shimmering after dozens of times digested on Top 40 radio. As always, Gaga has turned an lofty idea into a jingle for the masses.