One of the hardest things for a pop artist to pull off is a second act. It’s easy to list examples of singers crashing in to the mainstream — sometimes with one song, other times with a few songs on one album — and not knowing where to go once they get there. It’s an understandable predicament, since deviating from a formula that has produced immense success is a difficult trigger to pull. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Yet the true greats are considered such because they understand how to evolve once they arrive in the spotlight, and know to throw a changeup when their fastball is still effective. Imagine if Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince or George Michael had committed to their first modes, their debut personas, for the entirety of their careers; they still would have been stars, but would they have been legends?
Rainbow is technically Kesha’s third album, but it is the start of her second act. It is a rebirth five years after her most recent album; in the interim, as you probably know, the singer-songwriter has been trapped in legal purgatory against the producer who helped engineer her stardom. On 2010’s Animal and 2012’s Warrior, Kesha was a synth-pop siren, beckoning dance floors to join her wayward, riotous party. The years that have preceded Rainbow have been full of headlines and heartbreak; the album could not have feasibly been a collection of 12 “TiK ToK’s” or “Take It Off’s” without feeling disingenuous. But what Kesha pulls off on Rainbow is far more impressive than a handful of club bangers. Her long-awaited return is an honest, often thrilling statement of who she is today, refracted through several types of songwriting approaches that showcase a range underutilized on her first two albums. Kesha reflects on her past, but has moved on to new sounds and ideas. As listeners, we are better served for it.
Think of Rainbow as 14 rabbit holes in which Kesha could leap down after 2017. Make no mistake, she can still headline a killer pop tune, as the salacious “Boots” and shimmery sing-along “Learn To Let Go” prove. But could Kesha make a straightforward rock album after this? Absolutely: the two collaborations with Eagle of Death Metal here, “Let ‘Em Talk” and especially “Boogie Feet,” amplify Kesha’s shit-kicking riot grrrl streak, to great effect. Could she drop an empowering piano ballad compilation? Sure, since, although lead single “Praying” has some overly righteous lyrical passages, Kesha sounds fantastic on it. Kesha could make a whole country duets album with Dolly Parton after Rainbow’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You),” and it would be captivating; she could also make a full project with the Dap-Kings following “Woman,” this album’s loosest and most pleasurable moment.
Kesha has strolled down some of these roads before — she’s got a Nashville background and an Iggy Pop duet in her past, after all — and some of the experiments are more successful than others. But making a project this varied without sacrificing an ounce of personality is a hard task to take on, and throughout the shapeshifting soundscapes behind her, Kesha’s spirit is never obscured.
If you’re a fan of Kesha, the most heartening aspect of Rainbow is what it means for her future. This album demands that listeners not perceive the singer-songwriter as one-note, a blip in the history of pop culture. It also proves that the personal devastation she has been put through in recent years did not dampen her enthusiasm to grow, or outshine the music she made when finally escaping it. Where can Kesha go after Rainbow? Anywhere she wants. But, most importantly, she will be going somewhere.