Since storming the music world with her brand of self-aware ska-pop in 2006, Lily Allen has learned that the industry is loyal to no one. “There was a part of me that did want to give up,” she recently told Esquire. “I was at the end of my tether. I’d had enough of people constantly hacking at me.” But on Sheezus, her controversy-steeped first album since “retiring,” getting married and having kids, she… read more »
Since storming the music world with her brand of self-aware ska-pop in 2006, Lily Allen has learned that the industry is loyal to no one. “There was a part of me that did want to give up,” she recently told Esquire. “I was at the end of my tether. I’d had enough of people constantly hacking at me.” But on Sheezus, her controversy-steeped first album since “retiring,” getting married and having kids, she wants back in. Desperately. The title track and opener, one of the album’s high points, features a friendly “Control”-style taunt over a DJ Dahi-supplied patchwork of crisp electronic samples. In it, Allen rattles off a shopping list of current female stars whose ranks she wishes to join: Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lorde, Lady Gaga. Unfortunately, Sheezus, most of which was produced and written with longtime collaborator Greg Kurstin, lacks the cohesive aesthetic direction each of those women has mastered.
Sheezus‘s big ideas are hollow; there’s the generic blind-to-the-haters “Air Balloon” (“We can’t hear what they say up in my air balloon”), the unconvincing party anthem “Our Time” (“We just wanna dance the night away/ We don’t give a damn what people say”), and the ironic, reference-heavy anti-blogger manifesto “URL Badman” (“I don’t like you, I think you’re worthless/ I wrote a long piece about it up on my WordPress”). And its musical ideas are mostly outdated; pastiches of the dubby, M.I.A.-derived fusion-pop are interspersed with uneven interpolations of country (“As Long As I Got You”) and Afropop (“Life for Me”). Allen herself recently acknowledged singles like the patriarchy-skewering “Hard Out Here” are “rubbish.”
Allen’s lullaby-sweet melodies are still the focal point of each song, and they mercilessly lodge themselves in the brain while simultaneously softening her glibness. But her prickly irony often falls flat and distracts from the more compelling, personal half of the record, where she stops moralizing long enough to turn inward, mining the experience of abandoning a hard-partying lifestyle in favor of motherhood. The piano-driven power ballad “Take My Place,” on which Allen sings “How can life be so unfair/ I can’t breathe, I’m choking on the air” about a miscarriage, places emotional honesty at its core and it’s a rare treat.
The boundary-shattering, genre-synthesizing approach perfected by the album’s inspiration, Kanye West’s Yeezus, is sorely absent. Allen sounds less like a viable pop star and more like a perennial insider/outsider responding studiously, but not particularly thoughtfully, to the arrival of a new crop of stars and less forgiving media atmosphere.