With a hit single once again heating up the charts and a new album set for a December release, Ke$ha is back, stripped down and ready to rumble.
When Ke$ha burst onto the scene in 2009-rapping through an Auto-Tune filter about brushing her teeth with whiskey and boys trying to "touch [her] junk" -- the then-22-year-old quickly positioned herself as pop's resident troublemaker and made the charts her home. In its first week of release, her bratty debut single, "TiK ToK," smashed the record for highest single-week sales for a female solo artist with 610,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan (the previous record-holder, Lady Gaga's "Just Dance," sold 419,000 in its first week), and soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Dr. Luke- and Benny Blanco-produced anthem took just 11 weeks to top the chart, holding the peak position for nine weeks on its way to becoming the longest-running No. 1 debut single by a female artist since 1977, and the highest-selling digital single of all time, second only to the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling," with almost 14 million copies sold.
Ke$ha's debut album, "Animal", crowned the Billboard 200 when it arrived at the top of 2010 with 152,000 copies in its first week, according to SoundScan. Driven by an attractive $6.99 initial price point, it leveraged the sales record of "TiK ToK" with iTunes' Complete My Album program and took full advantage of the holiday shopping season with a preorder program that launched Dec. 15, 2010. The result was another digital benchmark, this time for sales of a No. 1 album.
A series of top 10 hits, including "Your Love Is My Drug," "Take It Off" and "Blah Blah Blah" (featuring 3OH!3) followed, and in November 2011, Ke$ha once again shot to the top of the Hot 100 with "We R Who We R," the lead single from the EP "Cannibal", which was also included in the deluxe-edition repackage of Animal. "We R Who We R" bowed at the peak position with more than 280,000 digital downloads. Ke$ha, who co-writes her own songs, was a hit factory, mining chart gold.
That is, until she took a break. After touring as the opening act on the North American leg of Rihanna's 2010 Last Girl on Earth tour (which grossed $13.1 million from 18 reported shows, according to Billboard Boxscore) and then headlining the Get $leazy tour last year (grossing $2.1 million from nine shows), the Nashville-raised singer went on a month-long sabbatical before taking on her sophomore LP, "Warrior" (RCA/Kemosabe). Now, with "Warrior" set for a Dec. 4 release and lead single "Die Young" gaining at radio (it's the Greatest Gainer this week, despite falling 13-14 on the Hot 100), Ke$ha is back, much to RCA's relief.
"I had the label breathing down my neck to come back and make a new record, and I kind of had to tell everybody to fuck off for a month," says the singer/songwriter born Kesha Rose Sebert. When her solo tour wrapped in September 2011, Ke$ha dropped out of the public eye after Rio de Janeiro's Rock in Rio Festival, making stops in South Africa and other locales before returning to the States in late October. She calls it a "spiritual journey," a chance to get off the road and back to herself and the land: "I needed to get my head back on straight and sleep in the dirt for a little while. And then I came back and have literally been working on my record ever since."
After a 14-month break from the top 40, Ke$ha returned to the upper reaches of the charts with the release of "Die Young" on Sept. 25. RCA chose WHTZ (Z100) New York to debut the track as part of Clear Channel's iHeartRadio World Premiere program on the "Elvis Duran and the Morning Show," which reaches 7 million listeners in 50-plus markets each morning. For the first day, it played the song every hour. The response was so strong that Z100 moved the cut to its "power new" category, playing the song every other hour to give it maximum exposure.
"You don't really see reactions like this so quickly," Z100 PD Sharon Dastur says. "It's been a week-and-a-half and we feel like it was selling well. We put it into our research and it was enormous. It was just so interesting to see how a song could connect so quickly. I just know that this is going to be a huge, huge album for her and she's really going to just pick up where she left off."
The same day RCA distributed "Die Young" to digital retail, standard and deluxe edition preorders for "Warrior" were made available on iTunes for $9.99 and $11.99. (The latter includes four extra tracks.) This time, RCA opted out of iTunes' Complete My Album program and instead offered consumers a free download of "Die Young" with every preorder of "Warrior". Leading up to the album's release, each of those preorder-driven free downloads counts toward the single's total digital tally.
RCA Music Group president/COO Tom Corson says that so far, the method is paying off. "The preorder is beating our expectations and doing well," he says. "Ke$ha had an incredible run with the first project, with ["Animal"] and then "Cannibal", the repack. It was global. Hopefully, that's what ["Warrior"] will do. Our intention is to cement her as an established pop star. When you listen to the album and all the possibilities on it, we have high hopes."
That meant heeding to Ke$ha's creative vision for "Warrior". After dousing her vocals in Auto-Tune for her debut gave the critical community reason to believe that her voice was the product of technological tricks, Ke$ha set out to banish Auto-Tune almost entirely from the project and incorporate more guitars, which she had excluded from "Animal".
"I got really sick of people saying that I couldn't sing, because I can do very few things confidently in my life, and one of them is that I can sing," she says. She was so adamant about proving herself that she first contemplated making Warrior a rock album. "I remember thinking [with "Animal"], 'Oh, it's just processed. People will learn that I can sing later.' But after reading some reviews that were like, 'She can't sing,' I finally was like, 'Fuck that.'"
RCA senior VP of A&R and operations Rani Hancock notes how her abilities shine in the studio and onstage, echoing how critics often mistake the use of Auto-Tune for a lack of talent. "Ke$ha is really one of the best singers I've been in the studio with," says Hancock, who served as A&R rep for "Warrior" as well as "Animal" and "Cannibal". "She has an amazing voice and having been out on the road like she has, her voice has opened up from what it was previously. She really can sing her ass off. I think that she had a bad reputation, and her bad reputation was not justified."
By going light on Auto-Tune, "Warrior" brings songwriting to the forefront. The LP features the collaborators who made "Animal" a pop powerhouse -- Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco and Cirkut -- but it also makes room for what Ke$ha terms her "dream team" consisting of the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, Iggy Pop, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and fun.'s Nate Ruess, who co-penned "Die Young."
Some of the tracks are the Ke$ha we already know, with stadium-sized hooks and trash-talking lyrics. "Supernatural," a glitch-pop anthem with strong shades of Justice and Daft Punk, is inspired by what Ke$ha describes as a real-life sexual tryst with a ghost that eventually forced her to move to her current Nashville abode. ("It was definitely a man and it was really intense," she says.) On "Crazy Kids," she goes full party monster, repositioning herself as the bad girl, rapping: "Ke$ha don't give two fucks, I came to start that ruckus/And you want to party with us, because we crazy motherfuckers."
But for fans familiar with Ke$ha's early acoustic demos, some of which can be found on YouTube, the LP's softer side offers tracks like the Coyne-produced "Past Lives," which features a string arrangement from Ben Folds and plays like a bare, smoky ballad. Her vocals come to the center on "Wonderland," a crisp midtempo jam with country underpinnings, while "Last Goodbye" tightropes between club monster and alternative pop.
The talent and attitude evident on "Warrior" is what first appealed to Dr. Luke, who plucked Ke$ha's demo out of 100 others. The producer, who fostered Katy Perry's career and got his pop start by helming Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," saw her immediate potential and signed her to his Kemosabe Records and publishing company Prescription Songs in 2005. He gave Ke$ha her first break by putting her on the hook for Flo Rida's global hit "Right Round," which set a single-week digital sales record with 636,000 copies sold. Though she was neither credited on the U.S. version of the single nor compensated, the success of the song propelled her from unknown to known commodity, and she soon signed with RCA after fielding offers from several other labels.
Dr. Luke -- who served as executive producer for all three of Ke$ha's studio projects -- sees her as a versatile singer, songwriter and entertainer. (And he knows her strengths as a songwriter well -- the two share writing credit on Britney Spears' "Till the World Ends," which hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 in 2011.) "She has enormous potential," he says. Luke sees "Warrior" as a continuation of the pop persona Ke$ha staked out on "Animal". "There's a lot of what I refer to as 'smart stupidity.' Intentionally dumb stuff that's good," he says. He points to the opening line of "TiK ToK" ("Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy") as an example: "Just dumb lines that are stupid, but good. Lines that a professional songwriter would never, ever write."
Following the release of "Warrior", Ke$ha plans to return to the road for the sequel to the eight-month Get $leazy tour, which touched down in North America, Australia, Europe and South America. Creative Artists Agency booking agents Chris Dalston and Rick Roskin are yet to reveal the itinerary, but Ke$ha plans to extend her reach in international markets beyond her first headlining stint.
According to Jack Rovner of Vector Management (which also manages Kings of Leon, Trace Adkins and the Fray), Ke$ha's rigorous touring schedule for Get $leazy established her as a force in the live music market. "When we closed the book on the first project, she had just sold out [New York's] Jones Beach, New Jersey, Washington [D.C.] and Toronto. She had really solidified the beginnings of an incredible touring career," Rovner says. "The fan base was growing. I think there are new markets to conquer and to go to the next level -- the U.K., Australia, Japan, South America -- and although we have a great foundation to build upon, we really believe we're going to go do that."
While recording "Warrior", Ke$ha interacted with listeners in the digital space to keep her name fresh and grow her fan base. Like Lady Gaga's Little Monsters and Rihanna's Navy, Ke$ha has amassed a strong following that she refers to as her Animals. On Twitter (@keshasuxx), she's accrued more than 3.1 million followers, and has almost 22 million likes on Facebook. That following, she says, kept her motivated to record "Warrior" and produce her best material.
"I like to take my time," Ke$ha says. "I think some of my fans have gotten super impatient, but I tell them that hopefully, it'll be worth the wait. You don't want me to come out with a record that's full of shit because then nothing else matters. Nobody's going to play it, and it doesn't matter how good the video is. If the songs are shit, then nothing else matters."
While "Animal" and "Cannibal" helped Ke$ha find her footing on the charts, RCA hopes that "Warrior" establishes her as a brand. In August 2010, Ke$ha announced her partnership with Casio to serve as a brand ambassador for a line of Baby-G watches, two of which she designed herself. RCA is in the beginning stages of executing brand partnerships for "Warrior" and is in the final stages of solidifying deals with retail outlets surrounding the release.
Shortly before "Warrior" hits stores, Ke$ha will release her illustrated memoir "My Crazy Beautiful Life" on Nov. 20 through Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. She describes the book as an "all-access pass to anything from when I was little to my family and being on the road," explaining that it's a gift for fans to understand her personal life better. She has also designed a jewelry line made of "natural elements" in partnership with a to-be-announced company, and will release a faux fur line to celebrate West Hollywood's ban on the sale of fur.
In addition, Ke$ha says that she's constantly writing songs and will hopefully put out another record "really soon." And though she had only a one-month vacation between projects, she says she's ready to dive back in. "It's my sophomore record, and there are a lot of things I needed to get off my chest and wanted to prove to myself I could do. I wanted to make sure it was representing exactly what I wanted it to represent so I could take my time," she says. "Sleep has become a luxury, but I guess we planned this. I got it figured out."