After the unprecedented, historical success of A Star Is Born — particularly the Grammy-winning single “Shallow” — Lady Gaga has never been better. So why did it still feel like she was still facing an uphill battle when it comes to pop itself? Well, fanatical, die-hard fans aside, Gaga’s pop music bonafides weren’t necessarily bolstered by the movie’s emotional, left-of-center ballad or ironic sell-out tracks. And after Joanne failed to get her back on top the way her camp hoped it would, the string of lackluster albums since the (unjust) flop of Artpop back in 2013 was only getting longer.
It’s not that her quick jazz standards follow-up a year later wasn’t another welcome example of her musical ambidexterity — Cheek To Cheek with Tony Bennett won a Grammy and debuted at No. 1 on the charts — it’s simply that amid all this pivoting, the monsters weren’t getting fed. They didn’t want family legacy-oriented anthems of self-discovery or, frankly, record-breaking soundtracks. They wanted dancefloor epics — needed them. And after an initial delay of Gaga’s album release due to the pandemic, it finally arrived last week.
Enter Chromatica, an album that constructs an entire world of glittering, pathos-driven bangers, each and every one of them ripe for both official and unofficial remixes, each and every one of them a full-blown, no-holds-barred pop song. Mother Monster knew her limit, a return to form was necessary, and the songs on Chromatica — which is apparently a new planet/universe she constructed to escape this one — still rely heavily on earth’s tried and true house music as a backbone. Even the orchestral interludes – not one, not two, but three — help showcase the bangers through elegant juxtaposition that, in the case of transitions like “Chromatica II” into “911,” enhance the whole listening process through dramatic effect.
Yet, Chromatica is not an easy listening album that immediately hits every sweet spot the first time through. In true Gaga fashion, some of the songs are remarkably sad, and in even truer Gaga fashion, plenty of them make absolutely no sense lyrically, sometimes venturing into a hodgepodge of symbols that are never fully fleshed out (See “Alice,” “1000 Doves,” and “Sine From Above,” to name a few). But if it manages to do anything, Chromatica creates a specific world and a distinct sound that’s the most cohesive sonic statement she’s released since 2011.
This cohesion can be credited, in some ways, to BloodPop, the producer who Gaga worked with most closely on the release. Of the sixteen songs, which includes three orchestral interludes as previously mentioned, the only tracks BloodPop doesn’t have a writing and producer credit on are the interludes and the track “Replay.” Though her earlier albums featured majority collaborations with producers like Fernando Garibay, RedOne (aka Nadir Khayat), and Paul Blair, never before has a Gaga album been dominated so completely by one collaborator.
Perhaps after years of wandering into jazz, movie soundtracks, country-pop and more, it was this kind of singular focus that brought her back to great heights as a pop queen — though it’s worth noting that BloodPop also produced nearly every song on Joanne, but most of those songs were Ronson co-writes and his influence came through stronger back then. In an interview with Paper magazine in March of this year, Gaga goes so far as to call BloodPop the “nucleus” of Chromatica, and like the emerging pop star-producer relationship between Charli XCX and A. G. Cook, the studio marriage of a pop icon/vocalist with a futuristic electronic producer is an excellent one.
The heart and soul of the record live in the first two singles, the ebullient, crackling lead single “Stupid Love,” followed up with the Ariana Grande-assisted “Rain On Me,” a flawless duet between one of pop’s veterans and a star just entering her imperial phase. Though plenty of other songs on Chromatica are excellent — and appearances from Blackpink (“Sour Candy”) and Elton John (“Sine From Above”) are just as notable — there’s a sense that Ariana can do no wrong at the moment, and her co-sign alone catapults “Rain On Me” to a rarefied realm. Paired with a dystopian dance video, it becomes the kind of hit Gaga needed to get back on top, and a song about survival and resilience sung by two female pop stars who have faced so much trauma is particularly powerful.
Exploring her experience with PTSD — the psychological result of her teenage rape, including the lingering physical pain of fibromyalgia, and later, a severe hip injury — Chromatica plays with Wonderland themes on “Alice,” aptly named after Lewis Carroll’s fearless — if clueless — heroine. The cyclical, escapist hit is the album’s de facto debut track (coming after the first interlude) and starts off a bit icy, making way for the warmer tones of another standout, “Free Woman,” which directly challenges the idea that singledom is a death sentence for a lady. Despite its name, “Fun Tonight” is about when things turn out just the opposite and is a potential low moment on the album, along with “Plastic Doll,” which hits a pretty empty trope of famous-woman-as-barbie-doll.
But on a standout like “911,” Gaga manages to expertly balance her suffering and self-frustration with the dancefloor freedom that defines the album — “My biggest enemy is me / Pop a 911,” she sings, promoting the prescribed, productive pills that help so many of us regulate our mental health, rather than escapist, addictive drugs that can so quickly derail even the best and brightest. As a pop star who is intimately familiar with highs and lows, Lady Gaga is successful on Chromatica because she doesn’t flinch away from the darkest parts of the world, or herself, but instead drills down beneath the surface until she finds something bright and molten, something she can shape a new universe from.
Chromatica is out now via Interscope Records. Get it here.