After prepping the world with her attention-grabbing singles "Hard Out Here" and "Sheezus," Lily Allen is ready to deliver her new album. Sheezus is out on May 6th, but you can stream it today via Spotify.
Allen, whose first two albums relied on catchy-but-relatively shallow tracks like "Smile" and "Fuck You" to catapult her onto radio charts the world over, has taken a step back from music, having a child and taking a five year break from releasing new material. She's returned bolder, more self-confident and ready to experiment with new sounds, as she tweeted in 2012 that she was "throwing shit at the wall and seeing if anything sticks" in the studio. Her mindset going into Sheezus is explained on the album-opening title track: "Can't just come back, jump on the mic and do the same thing." If that's not enough to alert you that we're getting Lily Allen 2.0 on this album, the inclusion of the words "Divide et Impera" (divide and rule) on the album cover is yet another harbinger of Allen's "will it blend?" mentality with genres and cultural ephemera on Sheezus.
The resulting product is very transparent in its influences and motivations, to the point that individual sonic elements seem less like the figurative shit that stuck to the wall of Lily Allen's recording studio and more like carefully-planned product placement. There's the lyrics of "Our Time," which find Allen showing off her record collection, touting the fact she has "everything that came out on Def Jam," dubstep and basically anything else your heart could desire, which could be taken as a metaphor for the full album. Leaf through Allen's collection for long enough, and you'll realize that "L8 CMMR" crams in a hook from Tom Tom Club's "Genius Of Love" and horns that are just a few shades off from the Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey," that the "nah nahs" on "Air Balloon" are culled from dozens of M.I.A. songs, that she includes G-Funk synths apropos of nothing on three separate songs, that the drums on "Take My Place" are relics from the era of Coldplay's "Clocks" and all of the UK bands that followed their lead, and finally, that the zydeco accordion of "As Long as I Got You" and the afrobeat-lite on "Life For Me" make no sense in the second half of an album that otherwise tries its hardest to sound as 2014 as possible.
Having diverse influences is, by itself, not a make-or-break factor on an album. But when, scattered, all-too-obvious influences coalesce with all-too-obvious references and all-too-obvious songwriting, we're left with a Sheezus that has little more than its initial face-value. There are no hidden meanings, no literary devices used other than sarcasm and extremely up-to-date references -- no metaphors, no figurative language, no imagery. Like many average comedic films, you'd laugh at the punchlines the first time through ("I'm getting high but I ain't doing benzos"), but without subtlety and complexity, there's no incentive to return.
What Allen banks on here is her overall message: I'm not going to play by the rules laid out for female pop stars. "Hard Out Here" outlines -- very well I might add -- the unfair nature of female stardom, which rings even truer as Allen's first post-pregnancy, post-hiatus track. The promise of a true, uncompromising feminist pop album is enough to make any sane person salivate, but it's also a promise Allen doesn't live up to. Without even getting into the concerns that arose with her "Hard Out Here" video, the other attempts at righting pop music's sexism on Sheezus are hollower than most female pop stars' cheeks.
"URL Badman," probably a response to the "Hard out Here" article on Noisey that's linked above, is the main culprit here. Beginning with the sound of typing, followed by a mother telling her son that food is ready, Allen sets the scene for a takedown of a wannabe VICE writer that lives with his parents -- someone who she clearly thinks is more to blame for the unfair treatment of women in music than moneyed executives at record labels and marketing firms (neither of whom get thrown under the bus on Sheezus). Allen tries to get at the white male-dominated field of online music journalism, but misses out on her opportunity by rattling off name-drops of seemingly unrelated artists ("Spaceghost Purrp," "XX remix," "Winnie the Pooh" and "Kanye" all make appearances) and including sheep sounds in the dubstep-driven track. This song reads more like an immature Tumblr post than a piece of cultural criticism, and by getting swept up in crafting an unflattering image of struggling writers, Allen almost totally invalidates her point.
In other places, she sends misguided disses at British model Jordan Dunn and female DJs which make you question if it's really women Allen's fighting for. Sheezus truly had the potential to take a strong position, sonically and politically, and Allen really whiffed it on both accounts by creating an album that's as confusing lyrically as it is genre-wise. The best political albums have almost always presented a unified front between music and politics -- Bikini Kill's unrelenting feminism being echoed in their frantic punk rock on Pussy Whipped, Sly & The Family Stone returning darker than ever on There's a Riot Goin' on to match the racial tension in the nation, even on M.I.A.'s Arular, Diplo's shorthand summaries of various world music genres coincided with her decidedly international critique of neoliberalism and the U.S.' foreign policy. Lily Allen, however, cheapens her message by making it hyper-relevant in that attention-grabbing, Buzzfeed list of "The 16 Most Sexist Things Ever" type of way. That may be what Allen's going for, as those lists are visible, accessible and relevant to the lives of many of her fans, so maybe I'm fishing for too much substantive content here, but the self-proclaimed "Sheezus" seems awfully self-serving in her alleged outrage.
Sheezus is available for preorder on iTunes.